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On the 60th anniversary of one of the greatest milestones in space exploration, Deputy Keeper of Technologies and Engineering Doug Millard looks back at the celebrations that followed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic mission.

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

Soviet space programme Chief Designer Sergei Korolev wishing cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who is wearing his spacesuit, well before his mission in 1961.
Soviet space programme Chief Designer Sergei Korolev wishing cosmonaut Gagarin well before his mission, 1961. Ria Novosti

His flight in the Vostok spacecraft lasted a little over one and a half hours and took him around the world.

Article from a Soviet magazine on Yuri Gagarin's mission with a lifelike illustration of the astronaut in front of a graphic of the Earth. The article also features black and white photographs of the space shuttle interior and exterior.
Soviet magazine article on Yuri Gagarin’s mission, 1961. Ria Novosti

His mission hadn’t been announced until he was already in orbit but by the time he landed in Kazakhstan, Soviet radio was broadcasting his achievement to the globe. Soon after touch down the acclamations began.

A smiling Yuri Gagarin waves at cheering crowds soon after his landing.
Gagarin is cheered soon after his landing, 1961. Ria Novosti

Over the next few weeks and months it spread, accompanying Gagarin as he visited country after country receiving rapturous reception wherever he went.

A uniformed Yuri Gagarin at Heathrow Airport followed by a crowd of people. Large crowds of people can be seen filling the roof, balconies and windows of the building in the background.
Gagarin departing Heathrow Airport, London 14 July, 1961, with huge crowds still following his every move. Sputnik

In July 1961 he came to the United Kingdom, his first trip outside the Soviet bloc. His invitation came from the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers. Before joining the Soviet Air Force Gagarin had been a fellow steel worker. Over four days Gagarin toured London and Manchester where he was introduced to dignitaries, civic leaders, politicians and royalty.

A uniformed Yuri Gagarin shakes hands with then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan on the front steps of a building while crowds and police officers observe from the doorway.
Gagarin meets Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, 1961

On 14 July he took lunch with Her Majesty the Queen. Everywhere he went he was greeted by huge crowds who wanted to see this charismatic young man – he was just 27 years old – who had taken humanity into the new realm of space. He didn’t have time to visit the Science Museum but not long after the museum put on display a model of his Vostok spacecraft.

At the time the Soviet authorities released very little details of space missions and vehicles and so the model, following the available specifications, looked quite unlike the real thing! Curators and museum workshop technicians remedied this with an accurate scale model a few years later.

The Gagarin display in the Cosmonauts exhibition (2015). The Vostok spacecraft of Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, is on the left.
The Gagarin display in the Cosmonauts exhibition (2015). The Vostok spacecraft of Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space, is on the left. Science Museum Group Collection

Although Gagarin never visited the Science Museum during his short life – he died in an aircraft crash in 1968 – his pioneering mission was well represented in the 2015 Cosmonauts exhibition and two years later a special bust was unveiled celebrating the man, his life and his breaching of the final frontier for humanity.

Bust and display dedicated to Yuri Gagarin in the Science Museums Exploring Space gallery.
Bust and display dedicated to Yuri Gagarin in the Science Museum’s Exploring Space gallery. Science Museum Collection.

You can learn more about Yuri Gagarin’s historic mission in our Exploring Space gallery when the Science Museum reopens. Sign up to our newsletter to be the first to hear when tickets go on sale.

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