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Gagarin Space Memorabilia Goes To Auction At Sotheby's

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Yury Gagarin died at the early age of 34.

Yury Gagarin died at the early age of 34.

The day is April 12, 1961, the place is the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. And a man blasts off from the Earth for the first time headed for space:

It was Yury Gagarin's day. The 27-year-old senior lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force made a faultless orbit of the Earth in his one-hour, 48-minute flight in the Vostok-1 vehicle, returning home in good health.

His flight changed the world forever, opening up new vistas of exploration for ever-inquisitive mankind. It also changed the geopolitical situation here on Earth, where the United States was readying its own manned space flight by astronaut Alan Shepard.

This was at the height of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, and U.S. disappointment was intense that they had been beaten to this memorable "first." Shepard did, however, make a short nonorbital flight less than a month later, on May 5, 1961.

Together with the shock of the 1957 Sputnik-1 flight -- Sputnik was the first satellite to orbit the Earth -- the Soviet space success galvanized the United States into maximum efforts on its own space program, which eventually led it to the moon and to the present space shuttle program.

Now reminders of those space-pioneering days have turned up at the New York office of the exclusive art and manuscript auction house Sotheby's. The U.S. millionaire businessman and onetime independent presidential candidate Ross Perot is selling his collection of Gagarin and Soviet space memorabilia.

The collection includes Gagarin's own copy of a report he wrote the day of his flight, describing the whole mission, and featuring the first-ever description of the Earth, which he called the "blue planet," from space. Sotheby's estimates its auction value as between $500,000 and $700,000.

"This is an extraordinary document, because what he does is to write an official report about everything that happened up there, without the supervision of the Russian space team," says Marcia Malinowski, a vice president of Sotheby's New York.

The report, one of only four copies made, is the star item in the 10 lots offered for sale.

"The fact that it is his very [own] copy of it, with a very, very big signature of Gagarin, I mean it's a very dramatic signature, shows that he was very proud to be in the situation he was in, and to have been selected," Malinowski says. "And for him to report back what had happened [in space], I think, was a major moment of his career."

Other items to be auctioned include the autographed text of a speech Gagarin gave to the Soviet State Commission on Space Flight. Also included are the diaries, from 1960 to 1974, of the deputy director of the Soviet space program, Vasily Mishin, which give valuable insight into the early days of Soviet space flight.

Gagarin died at the early age of 34 in an airplane crash.

Ross Perot purchased the collection of papers in 1993, after they had come West following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some come from Gagarin's widow Valentina.

The head of the Russian Federal Archive Service, Vladimir Kozlov, claimed in 2001 that a copy of the Gagarin report circulating in the West may have been stolen from a Soviet state institution.

As an official document it belonged to the state, he said. Russian archivists were allowed to examine the document, but reached no conclusion. It's not immediately clear whether that document is the same one as offered by Sotheby's.

with agency reports