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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Icon: Yury Gagarin

APYury Gagarin
This Thursday is Cosmonautics Day, a holiday commemorating the first-ever manned space flight by Yury Gagarin, one of Russia's most admirable and charming heroes.

On April 12, 1961, at the age of 27, Gagarin was buckled in the small Vostok capsule. As the spacecraft's designer, Sergei Korolyov, fussed like a mother hen during the prelaunch checks, Gagarin whistled tunes, cracked jokes about the hooch he hoped to be served at his post-flight meal, and famously declared "Poyekhali!" (Let's go!) at takeoff, as if he were heading off to the riverbank with friends instead of alone as the first man in space.

During the 108-minute flight, Gagarin seemed delighted with everything -- the seamless work of the onboard systems, weightlessness and the view. In the flight transcript, his reports on capsule humidity and temperature are interspersed with lyrical descriptions: "The heavens are black, but at the edge of the Earth along the horizon there is such a beautiful aureole, which gets darker farther from the planet. ... It's a beautiful sight."

Gagarin returned to Earth a hero, cheered in ticker tape parades all over the planet that he alone had seen from space. But he never flew another mission. In 1968 he was killed during a training session on a MiG-15 fighter jet. He was buried by the Kremlin wall.

This year in Moscow, Russian space program participants and veterans are to pay tribute to Gagarin and other heroes of the space program at graveside ceremonies and be feted at the Russian Army Theater in the evening. If you have children, you can take them to VVTs (the All-Russia Exhibition Center) where they can watch the launch of a miniature rocket with a stuffed dog, take a "space trip" to other planets on a "galactic tram" and chat with cosmonauts at the international space station.

No matter where you are, you can join one of Yuri's Night parties. Initiated in 2001 by three fans of space travel, 108 Yuri's Night parties are to be held this year in 31 countries. Look for the party nearest you at www.yurisnight.net.