On July 14 this year (2011) a statue of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was unveiled outside the British Council's offices on the Mall, in London, by his daughter Elana Gagarina, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of historic flight, in 1961. The statue was donated by the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, and is a replica of a statue in Lyubertsy, 20 km east of Moscow, where Gagarin trained at a vocational technical school. There is also an exhibition of objects and images from the Russian space program on display at the British Council.
Elana Gagarina, with the statue of her father.
Gagarin was born near the town of Gzhatsk (since renamed Gagarin in honor of its most famous son), 165 km to the west of Moscow, in 1934. He was the third of four children; his two older siblings were shipped west as slave labour during the Nazi occupation of the area during World War II. He trained at the vocational technical school in Lyubertsy and technical high school in Saratov, before entering the Military Pilot's School in Orenburg, where he met his future wife, Valentina Goreyacheva.
After completing his training he was posted to the Loustari Airbase near the Norwegian border, where over the next few years he rose in rank to Senior Lieutenant. In 1960, after a fairly vigorous selection process, Gagarin was chosen as one of twenty pilots for the Soviet Space Program.
On the 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, in the capsule Vostok 1. After the flight he became an international celebrity, visiting Italy, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Finland and the UK. He apparently found his celebrity status bemusing and stressful (coping with celebrity status probably wasn't a major part of the training for Soviet fighter pilots), and was rumored to have drunk heavily during this period, and to have had a number of extra-marital encounters.
In 1962 he was made a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, the equivalent of a Member of Parliament or a Senator. He later returned to Zvezdny Gorodok (Star City), the headquarters of the Soviet Space Program, where he was promoted to Colonel and worked on the design of spacecraft. He was killed in an air accident in 1968.
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