Celebrating 60th Anniversary of: Yuri Gagarin’s Spaceflight and Visit to Sri Lanka
By Yury Materiy
On 12 April, the world celebrates the 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight. On this day in 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space. When responding to the ground control if he was ready, he said his famous “Poekhali!” meaning “Let’s go!” in Russian. His Vostok 1 spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at 09:07 (Moscow time). Gagarin made a single orbit around Earth at an altitude of 302 km, proving a human could survive in space and even perform useful tasks. His first report sent to the ground control from space was “The earth is blue. [...] How wonderful. It is amazing”. The entire flight took 108 minutes and forever changed the world.
Following his historic flight, in 1961-1965 Yuri Gagarin embarked on a long world tour dubbed the ‘Peace Mission’, advocating for global peace and cooperation. He visited 32 countries, met Heads of State, politicians, artistes and people in the streets.
From 7 to 11 December, 1961, Gagarin visited Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where he was warmly received by the jubilant crowds, who cheerfully greeted him in many cities across the island.
His message to the people
In his message to the people of the country he said: “I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Government of Ceylon for the kind invitation to visit your remarkable country. I will be happy to be able to convey personally to the Ceylonese people warm friendly greetings from my fellow cosmonauts and all Soviet People. I consider this cordial invitation as a manifestation of sincere friendly feelings towards my country and the Soviet people”.
On 7 December, Gagarin was greeted by Deputy Minister of Finance George Rajapaksa at the Ratmalana Airport. Later that day, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike hosted a reception at the Temple Trees in honour of the world's first cosmonaut. There, a local award-winning artist Jayantha Premachandra handed over his masterpiece, a life-like portrait of Gagarin, to the Soviet cosmonaut.
On 8 December, Gagarin went on a trip to the South of the island, setting free doves of peace along the way. From Colombo he travelled to Moratuwa, Panadura, Kalutara, Aluthgama, Ambalangoda, Galle, Weligama, Matara, and Tangalle, where he was greeted by Member of the Parliament D. A. Rajapaksa, father of the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
On 9 December, Gagarin left for the central part of the island, visiting Kelaniya, Yakkala, Horagolla, Kegalle, Mawanella, Kandy, Matale and Kurunegala.The first Soviet cosmonaut planted a tree in the Peradeniya Botanical Garden – a Yellow Saraca, relative of the Ashoka Tree under which the Buddha was born. Speaking at the Queen's Hotel, Gagarin expressed hope that the bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and the USSR would grow like a tree that he had just planted. After Gagarin’s untimely demise the tree suddenly fell ill, almost dying, but luckily it recovered and keeps on growing to this day, stronger than ever.
On 10 December, the Soviet cosmonaut paid a visit to the ancient city of Anuradhapura where he laid white lotuses at the Sri Maha Bodhi Temple. After proceeding to the country’s North, where Gagarin concluded his trip around Sri Lanka, the first man in space impressed everyone when he piloted the Handley Page Dart Herald airplane from Jaffna to Ratmalana by himself.
After spending the night at the residence of the Governor-General of Ceylon, at the Queen's House in Colombo, Gagarin travelled around the capital where thousands of people burst into a thundering applause and cheered him. He made stops at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura (then Vidyodya University of Ceylon), Colombo University, and the House of the Sri Lanka-Soviet Friendship Society, taking part in discussions and meetings. In the evening, after speaking with journalists, a reception was held at the Galle Face Hotel.
The next morning Gagarin bid farewell to the people of Sri Lanka and continued his Peace Mission. The beautiful paradise island was one of the best places he visited during his world tour and it remained in his heart for the rest of his life.
(Yury Materiy is the Russian Ambassador in Sri Lanka)