London statue to celebrate Gagarin

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News


A statue is to be erected in London to mark the achievements of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

The zinc-alloy figure will sit just off The Mall, next to Admiralty Arch.

Gagarin made history on 12 April 1961 when he circled the Earth in 108 minutes in his Vostok capsule.

He subsequently went on a world tour, which included the UK.

Admiralty Arch was where he met the then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

It is also very near to a statue that celebrates one of Britain's greatest explorers and circumnavigator of the globe - Captain James Cook.

The 3.5m (12ft) statue is a gift from the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos) to the British Council, the organisation which represents the UK culturally abroad.

At the moment, Westminster City Council has granted a 12-month licence for the statue and its Portland stone plinth.

The British Council had originally sought to borrow an existing Gagarin sculpture from Russia.

But many were simply too big to ship to Britain. One statue did fit the bill: this was sited in the town of Lubertsy, just outside Moscow, where Gagarin trained as a foundry worker in his teenage years.

However, the town was reluctant to let the original go to London, and instead made moulds available to cast a copy.

"The original was made in 1984 to celebrate what would have been Gagarin's 50th birthday - he died in a plane crash aged 34," explained Andrea Rose, director of visual arts at the British Council.

"It will be patinated, but it will be quite silvery. We wanted it to look just like the original.

"It shows Gagarin in a very typical mode: he's wearing a spacesuit; his profession is on show. He's also standing on a globe and the trajectory of his orbit is around him."

It was the National Union of Foundrymen who invited Gagarin to the UK after his historic flight.

Image caption,
Harold MacMillan with Yuri Gagarin - 13 July 1961

Recently released documents from the national archive show the British government was unsure how to respond to the visit.

It is said the meeting between the cosmonaut and Macmillan was hastily arranged only after politicians saw that the public reaction was overwhelmingly supportive.

Andrea Rose said: "You have to remember that he is not just the most celebrated man on Earth when he comes down from space, he is the only famous figure who was actually neither a movie star nor a king or a queen - he was an icon from popular roots."

The statue will be formally unveiled in London on 14 July by the cosmonaut's daughter, Elena Gagarina, who is the director of the Kremlin Museums.

The statue is part of a series of cultural events to mark the Gagarin 50th anniversary. These events will include an exhibition at the Council's headquarters on the life of the cosmonaut and the early Soviet space programme.

The BBC will be playing its part by showing the First Orbit film on 17 big screens around the UK.

Shot on the International Space Station and including archive material, the movie tries to recreate what Yuri Gagarin might have seen on his flight around the Earth.

The showings will start exactly 50 years on from the moment of launch - 0707 BST (0607 GMT). They will then be repeated at lunchtime.

Image caption,
Gagarin went into darkness behind the Earth over the Pacific. He saw the Sun rise as he was moving over the South Atlantic

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