Russian Cosmonauts Honor Yuri Gagarin, 1st Man in Space, From Orbit
Credit: NASA

Cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station honored a Russian space holiday Monday to celebrate the historic launch of Russian fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin 49 years ago today that kicked off the era of human spaceflight.

Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, the current commander of the International Space Station, and his crew marked the occasion of Gagarin?s first human spaceflight ? known as Cosmonautics Day ? by speaking with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who reiterated Russia?s commitment to space exploration.

"Space will always remain our priority,? Medvedev said. ?This is not just somebody's interpretation. It's our official state position.? [Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin?s Spaceship.]

Kotov said that Gagarin?s mission may have launched in the midst of the Space Race between the former Soviet Union and the United States, but space exploration now is a cooperative effort ? one that reaches beyond those two countries. Today, Kotov commands a crew that includes three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese astronaut.

"Together, we have created a single organism," Kotov told the Russian president. "The crew functions as one body even though it consists of representatives from different countries. We have had a European astronaut on board. We have Japanese astronauts on board right now.? We have American astronauts, Russian, and we understand each other perfectly. We don't have any conflicts and I hope this will be true also regarding our cooperation everywhere else."

Exactly 20 years after Gagarin?s historic flight, NASA launched the first-ever space shuttle mission ? STS-1 aboard Columbia ? on April 12, 1981. The significance of the double anniversary was not lost on the station?s American crew. Especially since seven astronauts are visiting the space station on the space shuttle Discovery to deliver supplies.

?On behalf of all of us here on the International Space Station, including our shuttle colleagues, we just want to wish everyone congratulations on this historic day," said NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who arrived at the station earlier this month. "It means as much to us for the event of Yuri's first launch as it does for all of the people involved in making this space program possible.?

NASA?s three space shuttles are due to retire in September, ending nearly 30 years of operation. When they do retire, NASA will be entirely dependent on Russia for sending astronauts to the space station until commercially built spacecraft become available in the U.S., according to the space agency?s current plan.

Medvedev said the international cooperation highlighted by the space station is the mark of how human space exploration should be conducted into the future.

"No country can develop space alone, we need to combine our efforts and we need to talk about it more often," he said.

The $100 billion space station is the product of 16 different countries and five separate space agencies represented by NASA in the United States and space agencies from Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. Construction of the 800,000 pound (362,873 kg) outpost began in 1998. It is now nearly complete, with a backbone-like main truss as long as a football field and is easily visible from the Earth by the unaided eye.

But the space station?s interior living space ? which is about the size of a five-bedroom home ? is a veritable palace when compared to the one-man capsule Gagarin launched in during the first manned spaceflight.

Gagarin was only 27 years old when he blasted off in his Vostok 1 space capsule form Baikonur Cosmodrome in what is now Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The launch pad is still in use today, most recently for the Soyuz launch that delivered Caldwell Dyson and two Russian cosmonauts to the space station on April 2.

Gagarin?s computer-controlled spaceflight lasted only 108 minutes, enough time to orbit the Earth. Instead of landing on the ground, Gagarin parachuted from his capsule during the descent. Modern-day Soyuz spacecraft, which carry three people, fire retrorockets to soften a ground landing after descending under parachutes.

Gagarin never flew in space again. Sadly, he was killed in March 1968 while flying a training mission. But his legacy lives on in Yuri's Night, a global celebration of his iconic flight celebrated by space aficionados around the world.

Medvedev also asked Kotov and his crew about their life in space, specifically how often they have to exercise and how good the food is.

Food in space, too, has come a long way, Kotov said.

?The food has become more and more similar to what we eat on Earth,? he added. ?We don't have any tubes, though we do have cans and the variety is pretty good.?

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