- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MOSCOW | Russia must preserve its pre-eminence in space, President Dmitry Medvedev declared Tuesday on the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

The statement followed warnings by another cosmonaut that Russia risks losing its edge in space research by relying solely on Soviet-era achievements and doing little to develop new space technologies.

Mr. Gagarin’s 108-minute mission April 12, 1961, remains a source of great national pride, and Russia marked the day with fanfare resembling Soviet-era celebrations.

“We were the first to fly to space and have had a great number of achievements, and we mustn’t lose our advantage,” Mr. Medvedev said during a visit to Mission Control outside Moscow.

On Monday, Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew space missions in 1982 and 1984 and was the first woman to make a spacewalk, harshly criticized the Kremlin for paying little attention to space research after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

“There’s nothing new to be proud of in the last 20 years,” said Ms. Savitskaya, a member of Russia’s parliament from the Communist Party.

Russia has used the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, whose designs date back to the 1960s, to send an increasing number of crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

Russia’s importance will grow even more after the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis closes out the U.S. program this summer, leaving the Russian spacecraft as the only link to the station.

But Ms. Savitskaya and other cosmonauts have warned that Russia has done little to build a replacement to the Soyuz and could fall behind America quickly after it builds a new-generation spaceship.

Boris Chertok, the former deputy to Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, says it has become increasingly difficult for Russia’s space industries to hire new personnel.

“Salaries in space industries are much lower than average salaries in banks and commercial companies,” Mr. Chertok, 99, told reporters last week. “We need [more] people of Korolyov’s caliber.”

Mr. Korolyov, a visionary scientist as well as a tough manager, led the team that put the world’s first manmade satellite in orbit Oct. 4, 1957. He then spearheaded a massive effort to score another first with Mr. Gagarin’s mission.

“Our competition with America was spurring us to move faster to make the first human spaceflight,” said Valery Kubasov, a member of Mr. Korolyov’s design team who later became a cosmonaut.

Mr. Gagarin’s accomplishment shocked the United States, prompting it to declare the goal of putting a man on the moon.

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