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Gagarin Statue Lands At NASA's Birthplace

A Moscow municipal worker washes the upper part of the 70-meter-high monument to cosmonaut Yury Gagarin on Gagarin Square. (file photo)

A Moscow municipal worker washes the upper part of the 70-meter-high monument to cosmonaut Yury Gagarin on Gagarin Square. (file photo)

Former space-race foes from Russia and the United States have inaugurated a bronze statue in Texas of Soviet space pioneer Yury Gagarin to accompany one nearby of John Glenn in a salute to the first two men to orbit the Earth.

The works -- which you can see here -- are a gift to the city of Houston from the Dialogue of Cultures-United World fund and by the Russkiy Mir Foundation, both of them Russian groups, say local officials.

They were donated in order to stand outside the building that used to house U.S. space agency NASA's first headquarters.

The city of Houston calls the project "symbolic of Russia's and the United States' continuing collaboration in space exploration, particularly on the International Space Station."

The artwork of Cosmonaut Gagarin reaching toward space is a 9' tall bronze statue created by Russian artist Aleksei Leonov. The artwork for Astronaut Glenn is an 8' 6" by 17' steel panel with an image of him in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft. Houston artist Randy Twaddle and architect Ron Witte have collaborated on the design and fabrication of the Glenn artwork.

Gagarin presumably gets to stand about 30 centimeters higher than Glenn because he was first into orbit, not because the Russians are picking up the tab.

And in fact, a "Houston Chronicle" blog that quotes Houston Mayor Annise Parker says:

Russian donors had at first offered just the Gagarin sculpture. Parker said she asked the Russians to also donate the Glenn monument to signify the current spirit of cooperation between the countries. The $87,000 cost of the works and their installation comes at no cost to taxpayers.

It's tempting to regard the installation as a metaphor for the current state of space exploration, what with the United States shutting down its Space Shuttle program (in order to produce sublime street art in Los Angeles, it seems) and farming out manned space travel to Russia. That's an oversimplification, of course, and Russia's space program faces challenges of its own.

But Mayor Parker might be forgiven for trying to rewrite history just a bit, even with Gagarin's daughter and grandson in attendance. The "Chronicle" blog has added a parenthetical qualifier to an excerpt of Parker's speech that lots of "real historians" in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere might challenge:

Too many Houstonians have lost the history of what has happened over the years in Houston.... But real historians and those who are passionate about the history of the space program in Houston know this building as the first headquarters for human spaceflight (in the U.S.A.).

Russia's English-language international broadcaster The Voice of Russia says there are plans for more cooperation between the respective birthplaces of U.S. and Soviet space travel. It quotes Dialogue of Cultures foundation head Ruslan Bairamov as saying "a project known as Ethnomir near Borovsk in [Russia's] Kaluga region," home of the late rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, "aims to throw a bridge between Houston and Kaluga in terms of space exploration."

Another statue abroad of Gagarin stands just off The Mall in London, reportedly at a spot "passed" by the Soviet cosmonaut when he came for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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