Who wants to be a cosmonaut when they grow up?
- 12 April 2011
- From the section Science & Environment
If you visit School Number One in the town of Gagarin, you'll be in no doubt which former pupil they're most proud of.
As soon as you walk through the front entrance, you're greeted by a giant multi-coloured mural of the world's first spaceman.
There's a large statue of Yuri Gagarin in a downstairs corridor. Upstairs, a Gagarin bust. Plus a Gagarin museum and plenty of Gagarin portraits.
Yuri Gagarin was born in the nearby village of Klushino. He studied for two years at School Number One. Back then the town was known as Gzhatsk. But following his death in an air crash in 1968, Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin.
I ask a class of first graders what they know about the cosmonaut's life.
"He was a great man, he never got bad marks!" one boy tells me.
But the local hero hasn't put stars in their eyes. I ask the class who wants to be a cosmonaut later in life.
Denis doesn't. "I want to be a policeman," he smiles.
"I want to be a special forces soldier," Ruslan says.
"I'd quite like to be circus artist with my pet rabbit," replies Anya.
Even Fyodor, who dreams of being a pilot, admits he doesn't want to fly into space ("Because it takes too long").
If space no longer captures the imagination at Yuri Gagarin's old school, what chance for the rest of Russia?
"Thirty yeas ago, everybody dreamed of becoming a cosmonaut," space expert Yuri Karash recalls.
"But a few years ago the Russian space programme had to openly invite young people to apply for cosmonaut training; and there was no one who wanted to do it.
"People are no longer interested in flying in a low Earth orbit. It requires a lot of time and effort and it's not as financially rewarding as it once was."
Nor as prestigious. When Gagarin blasted off into space, he was a senior lieutenant. By the time he'd returned to Earth 108 minutes later, he'd been promoted to Major and was declared a "Hero of the Soviet Union".
He travelled the world advertising the Soviet Union's achievement. Wherever the Spaceman went, huge crowds came out to greet him. During a visit to Manchester, the British Union of Foundry Workers even gave him a gold medal.
Today's cosmonauts don't expect gold medals from Manchester. But all Russian spacemen since Gagarin have been awarded "hero medals" by their country.
Last year, though, the Russian Defence Ministry tried to deprive cosmonaut Maxim Surayev of such an award. The country's space agency was furious.
Surayev eventually got his medal, but the row was embarrassing and suggested that attitudes were changing to those who go into space.
It doesn't help that Russia has been slow to develop new spacecraft or come up with a long term vision for space exploration.
"The major deficiency of the russian space programme is its failure to see beyond the international space station," believes Yuri Karash.
"When the ISS is deorbited around 2020, Russia will have no goals for its human space programme. There are no concrete plans. If we want to reignite people's interest in space, we have to offer them at least something beyond the lower Earth orbit.
"We have to revive the spirit of exploration in their souls. If we don't do it, the space programme will be dead."
Not if Vladimir Putin has something to say about it. Last week, Russia's Prime Minister told officials he wants a more modern space industry, new Russian spacecraft and a long term plan for space exploration.
Perhaps the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight will help relaunch Russians' interest in the cosmos. TV channels here have been packed with documentaries and news reports about space; in memory of Gagarin's first space flight, Russians have been holding car rallies, cycle parades, crossword competitions; and thousands of balloons have been released into the sky.
And although there may be very few budding cosmonauts at School Number One, the first graders will be marking the occasion their own way.
Their class teacher opens a cupboard and takes out a scarf. It's like the Soviet ones worn by Young Pioneers - the communist version of the scouts. Although those cravats were red and this one is blue.
"Our children will all get a scarf like this," says the teacher. "And at a special ceremony they'll be admitted to a very special club. They'll all become 'Young Gagarinites'!"