Unveiling of Yuri Gagarin bust at Johannesburg Planetarium

Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi of Wits and Ambassador Ilya Rogachev of the Russian Federation toasting to Yuri Gagarin who became the first human to travel into space 60 years ago

21 October 2021

“Poyekhali! (off we go!),” exclaimed Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, as he was launched into outer space on 12 April 1961 and became the first human to travel into space 60 years ago. This historic event of human achievement was celebrated at an unveiling of a bust of the legendary cosmonaut at the University of Witwatersrand’s (Wits) Planetarium in Johannesburg which also celebrated 60 years since it was established.

Ambassador Ilya Rogachev of the Russian Federation to South Africa and Vice Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi of Wits spoke of the great significance of the event at the commemoration.

Gagarin took off in his Vostok1 spacecraft from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. His flight lasted 108 minutes, the time it took to orbit Earth, before returning to home soil. Gagarin bailed out as planned and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River, southeast of Moscow.

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'Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!,' Gagarin said of Earth from space during his solo orbit.

This momentous achievement was an acknowledgement of Russia’s scientific capabilities and capacity. Gagarin’s space flight sparked the human imagination and triggered a profound curiosity, and remains the inspiration and motivation for humanity to discover more about the cosmos and our universe; it spurred innovation and technological advances in space exploration and travel.

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Gagarin was the first cosmonaut who chartered the road to the stars for humanity and the significance of his extraordinary achievement is still as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Preserving this memory is one of the objectives of today’s unveiling, said Rogachev.

Under the helm of Professor Roger Deane, Director of the Wits Centre for Astrophysics, the Planetarium will undergo renovations and technical upgrades as part of the University’s centennial celebrations in 2022. The Digital Dome will be a multifunctional, multidisciplinary cutting-edge facility which will serve as a hub for researchers and postgraduates across many disciplines and broaden cooperation with the Russia Federation.

by Anisha Pemjee