Hundreds of schoolchildren and families have fired rockets into the air outside the National Space Centre in Leicester to mark the 50th anniversary of Russian cosmonaut crusader Yuri Gagarin leaving home to embark on his mission to be the first man in space.
The celebratory shebang honoured Gagarin’s successful bid to orbit the earth, taking off in the Vostok 1 spacecraft at 9.08am on April 12 1961. His 108-minute, 27,400km per hour flight instantly made the humble hero one of the most famous men in the world.
Organisers issued a message of hope and peace based on Gagarin’s own thoughts.
“Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marvelled at the beauty of our planet,” he confessed at the time.
“People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it.”
Dr Helen Sharman, who became Britain’s first astronaut when she spent 7 days on the Mir Space Station in 1991, said Gagarin won “the international crown for inspiration.”
“Wherever he went, crowds of people thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of the person who embodied the abilities of fellow humans, the bravery of exploration, and the desire to discover what is new,” she added, sounding somewhat emotional.
“On my last night in space, reflecting on my time, I realised that being away from Earth reinforced what my Russian friends had told me on the ground – what’s important is personal relationships and what people can do together.
"Space is grand and being part of it makes people feel grand.”
Dr Chris Welch, of the YuriGagarin50 campaign, called space “an inspirational subject” which could motivate adventurers of the future to follow careers in science and engineering.
“Gagarin’s legacy touches many areas of our lives today,” he argued. “Many people are unaware of how many applications space has in modern life and the important contribution space makes to the UK economy.
“It plays a vital role in the environmental monitoring of our planet. Yuri Gagarin was the first person to see the Earth from space and was struck by its beauty, its fragility and humanity’s duty to protect it.”
Last week it was announced that a statue of Gagarin will stand on the Mall in London in the summer.