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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Details Disclosed About Soviet Space Trips

Local media marked the anniversary of Yury Gagarin's pioneering space flight Friday with reports unveiling details of the once-secretive Soviet space program, while space officials and cosmonauts gathered to celebrate Cosmonauts Day.

President Vladimir Putin also Friday congratulated the U.S.-Russian crew of the international space station on the event and parts of the conversation were shown on national television.

Gagarin's 108-minute single orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961 -- weeks ahead of a 15-minute suborbital flight by U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard -- remains a source of pride, according to a poll of 2,000 Russians conducted by the respected ROMIR opinion research agency. The poll showed 45 percent of respondents said Russia remains a great space power, while 34 percent said the nation was losing its position and another 13 percent said it had already lost it. The rest were undecided, and no margin of error for the poll was given.

Gagarin's triumphant flight followed another Soviet first -- the launch of a satellite into orbit in 1957. The daily Izvestia dryly observed Friday that the two missions might not have come off if Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, hadn't narrowly escaped execution during the Stalinist purges.

A recently discovered secret police list of 74 people to be executed for alleged anti-Soviet activities was approved by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in September 1938. But a military court replaced the death penalty for Korolyov, a young aircraft designer at the time, with a 10-year prison sentence, Izvestia said.

Korolyov started out copying German rockets that fell into Soviet hands at the end of World War II and soon developed new, more powerful boosters that were capable of flying in space. He also selected would-be cosmonauts and chose Gagarin, a young fighter pilot, to be the first.

When Gagarin landed in a field near a military garrison in the Volga River city of Saratov, the first person to see him was a soldier who asked for his documents, fearing he was an American spy, the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda reported Friday.

In 1960, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been captured when his plane was shot down over the Ural Mountains.

Gagarin died in the 1968 crash of a training jet he was piloting on a routine flight.

On Friday, cosmonauts and space officials laid flowers at his grave and also paid tribute to four more cosmonauts who died in Soviet space disasters in 1967 and 1971.

The daily Gazeta revealed details of the 1971 catastrophe, which killed cosmonauts Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev on their re-entry into the atmosphere. A valve jerked open before their capsule entered the atmosphere, resulting in a loss of pressure that made the cosmonauts' blood boil in their veins.

"A doctor who opened the hatch screamed for several minutes," the newspaper quoted Kazi Azbukhanov, who witnessed the scene as a rescuer, as saying.

The investigation showed that the cosmonauts tried to close the faulty valve but couldn't immediately distinguish it from several others and chose the wrong one, Gazeta said.