Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gagarin's Public Diplomacy Legacy: 50 Years On

The past couple of weeks, I've been stumbling upon Gagarin-related articles, videos, discussions... the ultimate culmination of which is surely today, April 12: the day the first human flight to space took place 50 years ago. In 1961 the 27-year-old Yuri Gagarin spent 108 minutes aboard Vostok 1 on the first ever manned mission to the Orbit, undoubtedly giving the Soviet Union the upper hand in the Space Race.

Even 50 years later, or perhaps especially 50 years later, Gagarin's flight holds a major public diplomacy potential for Russia, as April 12th (originally, Russia's Cosmonaut Day) is commemorated around the world. It happened years ago, and I'm not surprised that many didn't know (or forgot) who Gagarin was; yet I am happy to see people around the world talk about and celebrate his achievement.

Image from NASA.

There is also another public diplomacy aspect to it all: as MIT's Ryan Kobrick said on Science Friday [NPR] last week, Yuri Gagarin was "humanity's first ambassador to the Cosmos," and that is an achievement surely not reserved for the Soviet Union (or Russia) only.

There are seemingly hundreds, of not thousands of different events and stories worldwide, and here's a rough sample of some of the most notable ones from the web:

- You have probably noticed the Google logo already. Clicking on it will show Google's search results for "Yuri Gagarin".

- YouTube is commemorating, too, with a special logo that will take you to the channel for the "First Orbit": a free movie by Attic Room Production, documenting this historic flight. Amazing shots, that I certainly recommend seeing, even if you have seen them elsewhere before.

- Celebration of "Yuri's Night": a global initiative connecting "530 events in 74 countries on 7 continents on 2 worlds [i.e. ISS]" (as of this writing). It marks both, the first flight, as well as the launch of the American Space Shuttle program exactly 20 years later. (Are you holding an event, too? Register it there!) Amazing...

- On April 8 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring April 12 the International Day of Human Space Flight. There is also a special exhibit in the UN Headquarters commemorating Gagarin's flight. (Russian Representative Vitaly Churkin didn't miss the chance. Well done!) What is more, the UN Postal Administration is releasing special stamps and souvenir sheets on the occasion.

- As I just mentioned, Russia has seized on the opportunity in terms of domestic "celebration", as well as public diplomacy abroad. For example, President Medvedev, for example, paid a special visit to the Mission Control Center, near Moscow, for a chat with the crew of the International Space Station. He also presented "state decorations to space industry employees and veterans" -- Russians and foreigners alike -- from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Vietnam and Brazil, among others. (Impressive, I should say!) Russkiy Mir Foundation, too, has a special page marking the day and related international celebrations, too.

- "Starman" by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony: a new book documenting Gagarin's life, is coming out today. Available on Amazon.

- Some striking historical video materials resurfaced on YouTube on the occasion. And, of course, major international wires and media the world over have made sure not to miss the story:

BBC footage from 1961: an interview during Gagarin's visit to London:

A Soviet documentary from 1981, marking the 20th Anniversary of Gagarin's flight:

The 'un-embedable' BBC News and Agence France-Presse.


CNN. Also features a striking photo collection.

Al Jazeera English:


Even China's CCTV:

And certainly, more on Russia Today TV.


The launch of Soyuz from Baikonour, Kazakhstan, taking two Russians and an American to ISS, featuring Gagarin's portrait on the side (April 6, 2011).


- The subject is also hot on Twitter: #YuriGagarin, #Gagarin, #Orbit1, among other related tags, are trending topics now. There's even a special account - YuriGagarin50 - for the UK Celebrations of the 50th anniversary. And although MedvedevRussia has himself been silent so far, KremlinRussia actively provided updates on the President's activities today.

Lastly, I think it's amazing to see American astronauts paying tribute to Gagarin, too. To quote retired astronaut Thomas Stafford: "I would say here today that without Yuri Gagarin flying, I would probably have not flown to the moon."

Yuri Gagarin shakes hand with NASA's Gemini 4 astronauts, Edward H. White II and James A. McDivitt at the Paris International Air Show in June 1965. Image from NASA.

I grew up on stories about the universe, and particularly about the "great Soviet achievements" in the Cosmos. And yes, just like perhaps every other kid in the region, I wanted to become a cosmonaut when I grew up (before I was confronted with real Maths and Physics, that is). Gagarin, despite his tragic death, has inspired many, whether in space or on Earth. Here's to you, brave man!


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