108 mins that stunned the world: Russia honors Gagarin

Mon Apr 11, 2011 11:40am EDT
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By Alissa de Carbonnel

STAR CITY, Russia (Reuters) - His 108-minute flight into space 50 years ago set new a horizon for humanity and overnight turned a farmworker's son named Yuri Gagarin into one of the century's heroes.

But half a century after his exploit captured the world's imagination and fueled a space race with the United States, Russia has found it necessary to release top secret archives to counter persistent rumors that Gagarin was later murdered on the orders of jealous or paranoid Soviet rulers.

"Gagarin once said: 'To me my whole life seems to be one perfect moment,'" recalled veteran Soviet space journalist Vladimir Gubarev earlier this month.

The 27-year-old's single Earth orbit on April 12, 1961 was one of the Soviet Union's most enduring Cold War victories and is proudly remembered today, especially in the cosmonaut town that is the heart of the nation's space program.

Star City, the world's oldest space-flight training center, resembles in many ways a shrine to the first man in space, whose premature death in a mysterious plane crash seven years after his flight cemented a poster-boy status.

Visitors on a rare open day were greeted by a lone statue of Gagarin dominating the snowy paths between worn buildings scattered behind a perimeter fence in a pine forest outside Moscow like some isolated university campus.

A mural of the national hero leads into a small museum hall filled with memorabilia: Gagarin's orange-brown space suit, gifts from foreign dignitaries and a room that painstakingly re-creates his office as it was on the day he died.

One striking photo shows Gagarin's round orbiter, scorched from its fiery descent, lying in a field in Russia's central Saratov region, where he was famously offered milk and bread by an astonished farmworker moments after landing.   Continued...

<p>A visitor looks at a wall of photographs of cosmonauts on display during the opening of an exhibition at the Memorial Museum of Astronautics in Moscow, April 8, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin</p>