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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Space Hero Eclipsed

Yury Gagarin, the golden boy of the cosmos and eternally youthful icon of the Soviet space program, would this week be celebrating his 60th birthday at an exhibition devoted to his achievements if he were still alive.

The first man into space at the age of 27, he was feted around the world and lauded at home. His laughing face and clean-cut good looks were as well known to Russian school children as James Dean was to Western teenagers. Like Dean, part of the glory was in the death of one so young and talented. Gagarin died in a car crash in 1968, but if he were alive today he would be experiencing a crash landing of a more humbling sort.

He would be growing old in a country that no longer cares for the great achievements of the Soviet era.

A huge portrait of Gagarin still hangs at one end of the vast Kosmos pavilion in the All-Russia Exhibition Center, formerly the Exhibition of the People's Economic Achievements. Lenin's quote about man conquering the universe is there too, but Gagarin's beloved space machines have been rudely thrust aside and stand like dusty dinosaurs in the gloom.

In their place, rows of shiny Cadillacs, Mercedes and a Bentley gleam beneath bright spotlights. Music from "Saturday Night Fever" thumps out as crowds wander along the lines of stretch limousines and convertible sports cars.

No one spares a glance at the rockets, spaceships and satellites. They are the real thing but look tatty and dated.

Across town at the Central House of Artists, hundreds waited in line Tuesday for the Dali retrospective, but few seemed to know about the new exhibition in the same building celebrating Gagarin's 60th birthday.

"No one's interested any more. Before, all the school children learned about him. Now they might not even know who he was," said one bystander.Veteran Russian and American astronauts, gathered for the opening of the exhibition, were understandably more enthusiastic.

"When Gagarin flew Kosmos I was only an engineer. But he was a wonderful guy. What he did changed the direction of mankind," said former Soyuz cosmonaut Oleg Makharov.

American astronaut Thomas Stafford said, "Yury Gagarin showed us the way. The others, Armstrong and Shepherd, were not far behind, but he was the first."

The group of astronauts were in an expansive mood at the close of the 10th Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers and were quick to point to the legacy of Gagarin and others.

The group have been working on a joint ecological study from space of Russia's forests and Siberia's Lake Baikal.

The Gagarin exhibition, gathered from museums all over Russia, Ukraine and the United States, is an unusual collection of astronauts' personal belongings alongside space memorabilia.

The exhibition "He Took Us All Into Space" is at the Tsentralny Dom Khudozhnika, Krymsky Val 10. Open daily except Mondays, 11 A.M. to 7 P.M.