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Gagarin's first space trip celebrated 50 years on

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Yuri Gagarin blasted off from the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan in 1961
  • Anniversary of first manned space mission marked by events including a flute duet in orbit
  • Astronaut Thomas Stafford said Gagarin's flight heralded an era of space exploration

(CNN) -- Fifty years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's Vostok spacecraft blasted off from the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan and into the history books, the epic flight of the first human in space was being celebrated Tuesday.

Gagarin spent 108 minutes crammed inside a tiny capsule completing the first ever orbit of Earth before landing back on Soviet soil in what was seen as a major coup for Moscow in its Cold War space race with the United States.

Half a century on, long after the Soviet Union's demise heralded a new era of global space cooperation, Gagarin's flight was being commemorated by enthusiasts on Earth, in orbit and in cyberspace.

A film shot from the International Space Station painstakingly recreating the April 12, 1961 orbit was broadcast on YouTube, launched to coincide with the Gagarin's 9.07am Moscow-time blast off.

50th anniversary of space history

Search engine Google offered its own cheery tribute, switching its usual logo for an illustration recalling the golden era of space travel.

And on the space station itself, one of its current occupants -- NASA astronaut Cady Coleman -- performed a flute duet with earthbound Ian Anderson of 1970s rock band Jethro Tull to mark the event.

In Russia, where Gagarin is still revered as one of the few enduring heroes of the Soviet era, visitors flocked to a space exhibition in Moscow featuring a replica of the cosmonaut's Vostok capsule.

Among them Alexey Leonov, the first Soviet cosmonaut to conduct a space walk, said Gagarin's legacy would outlive the political rivalries which sent him into space and inspired the U.S. Apollo moon landings less than a decade later.

I would say here today that without Yuri Gagarin flying, I would probably have not flown to the moon.
--Former astronaut Thomas Stafford

"In the past, we used to make a point of whether he or she was an American or a Russian or what not," he said. "In my view, if we don't remember what happened 50 years ago, we will forget everything in 100 years."

American space explorers also paid tribute to Gagarin. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Stafford said Gagarin's flight pushed the boundaries of science and engineering.

"There always has to be the first," he said. "And at the time, you know, there was a big competition. I would say here today that without Yuri Gagarin flying, I would probably have not flown to the moon."

Gagarin didn't live to witness the hundreds who have journeyed to space since his first flight. He was killed in 1968 in a plane crash.

In a recent interview, his daughter Elena Gagarina said her father had always shrugged off the considerable risks he endured during take off, orbit and landing, and longed to return to space one day.

"I can imagine how dangerous it was, but it wasn't something he would talk about," she told Andrea Rose of the British Council, a UK cultural organization that is bringing a statue of Gagarin from Moscow to display in London.

"But after his first flight, he wanted to fly again in space. He wanted to continue his work as a pilot and as a cosmonaut."

Rose told CNN Gagarin remained a globally important figure because of his achievement and his inspirational, if tragically short, life as a carpenter's son who went on to become one of the 20th century's biggest names.

"It was a breakthrough for mankind; for millennia nobody had ever traveled outside Earth's atmosphere, and to be the first is an inspiration to us all," she said.

"He is a contemporary Russian icon in the best possible sense. He came from the most modest roots and did something extraordinary."

CNN's Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance in Moscow contributed to this story.