MOSCOW — Russia must preserve its pre-eminence in space, President Dmitry Medvedev declared Tuesday on the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
The statement followed warnings by another cosmonaut that Russia risks losing its edge in space research by relying solely on Soviet-era achievements and doing little to develop new space technologies.
Gagarin's 108-minute mission on April 12, 1961, remains a source of great national pride, and Russia marked the day with fanfare resembling Soviet-era celebrations. Schools had special lessons dedicated to Gagarin, billboards carried his smiling face, and national television channels broadcast a flow of movies and documentaries about the flight.
"We were the first to fly to space and have had a great number of achievements, and we mustn't lose our advantage," Medvedev said during a visit to Mission Control outside Moscow.
On Monday, Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew space missions in 1982 and 1984 and became the first woman to make a space walk, harshly criticized the Kremlin for paying little attention to space research after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"There's nothing new to be proud of in the last 20 years," said Savitskaya, a member of the Russian parliament from the Communist Party.
Russia has used the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, whose designs date back to the 1960s, to send an increasing number of crew and cargo to the International Space Station. Russia's importance will grow after the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis closes out the U.S. program this summer, leaving the Russian spacecraft as the only link to the station.
But Savitskaya and some other cosmonauts have warned that Russia has done little to build a replacement to the Soyuz.
Boris Chertok, the former deputy to Sergei Korolyov, the father of the Soviet space program, says it has become increasingly difficult for Russia's space industries to hire new personnel.
"Salaries in space industries are much lower than average salaries in banks and commercial companies," Chertok, 99, told reporters last week. "We need (more) people of Korolyov's caliber."