‘Yuri is a Londoner’

Last Thursday, I found myself looking down on the Earth from Yuri’s orbit, listening to the delighted ooh’s and aah’s of my fellow cosmonauts, many of them Russians. This extraordinary space adventure was courtesy of a special ‘live’ planetarium show put on for the benefit of guests at the unveiling of a new commemorative statue of Yuri Gagarin, at the historic Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London.

Yuri strides across 'Planet Umbrella'!



London gave Yuri a traditionally rainy welcome, so that during the ceremony, he seemed to be striding across a sea of umbrellas. A toast in good Russian vodka however, helped to drive away the damp and chill!

The statue is a replica of one in the Russian town of Lyubertsy, where Yuri trained for a while as a steel-worker, before joining the Soviet air force. Its rugged socialist style looks quite striking in the genteel home of 18th century British planetary science. Nevertheless, it is a fitting location. The gentlemen astronomers of Greenwich began by studying and measuring the Earth and the stars as an aid to navigating the seas, but their work also marks a moment when mankind first started to see our world as a planet in space. In turn, Yuri’s flight marked a point where the curiosity and courage of scientists and explorers, took mankind beyond the Earth itself and into space.

The guest-list for the event was another reminder of the continuing prestige of Yuri Gagarin, both as a historical figure and as a personality. The Russian ambassador to the UK headed the list of political VIP’s, and there was also a strong delegation from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, together with sponsoring organisations. Representatives of the former Soviet flag-carrier airline, Aeroflot, were notable for their smart black uniforms, with the winged hammer and sickle emblem prominent in silver thread on the cuffs – a very stylish reminder of of the Soviet Union of Yuri’s day.

Guest of honour Elena Gagarina, with Museum Director Kevin Fewster,



Guest of honour however was undoubtedly Elena Gagarina, Yuri’s eldest daughter. Having spent long hours studying pictures and films of her father, it was a great thrill to see that she embodied many of the same qualities. She was smart, professional, gracious and diplomatic, but at the same time, had the same tiny but unmistakeable twinkle of amusement in her eye. She has proved to be a worthy cultural ambassador and a person very worthy of respect in her own right, but at the same time, a fascinating glimpse of the ‘Gagarin style’ that her father used to such good effect in his own dealings with admirers around the world.

Her speech was simple and heartfelt, and the gist of it was that Yuri has now become a Londoner – because of the welcome offered, not just by the diplomats and scientists, but by all his British fans who appreciate having a permanent commemoration of the world’s first space explorer.

Overlooking Greenwich Park, Yuri is backed by memorials to great astronomers.



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