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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Lauds Cosmonauts, Pans American Space Program


Boris Yeltsin on Friday marked the 35th anniversary of Yury Gagarin's historic flight into space by awarding medals to cosmonauts and space researchers -- including U.S. astronaut Norman Thagard and German spaceman Thomas Reiter.

The awards came a day after Yeltsin took a swipe at the U.S. space program, saying the Americans were "lagging behind" Russia.

Saying space exploration is a national priority, Yeltsin on Friday handed out medals to 25 space travelers.

Thagard, who lived on Russia's Mir space station for nearly four months last year, and Reiter, who spent six months aboard the Mir and returned in February, were given special medals commemorating their visits to the station.

"The dockings and joint flights of the orbital complex Mir and U.S. shuttles became a major event in the history of cosmonautics in Russia and the world," Yeltsin said in a message to Russia's space and defense industries. Thursday, Yeltsin ordered the government to lift tax and export duties from products of the missile-space industry. He said the same benefit should be applied to space programs worldwide.

At a meeting of defense industry bosses, Yeltsin said Russia's space program was ahead of the United States'.

"Americans are lagging behind us," he told Itar-Tass. "They cannot even imagine the space engines manufactured here. This is why the Americans cannot launch heavy spacecraft without us."

The crew currently aboard the Mir -- cosmonauts Yury Onufrienko and Yury Usachev and American astronaut Shannon Lucid -- were given the day off to celebrate Cosmonauts Day. "Of course we are going to have a holiday up here," Usachev said in a space-to-ground news conference Thursday.

Lucid, the first female U.S. astronaut to stay on Mir, said domestic arrangements are working well after three weeks together. "We're doing our share," she said. "We take turns picking up the trash and things like that." ()