Queen's answer to Yuri Gagarin question makes scientists laugh

‘What was Yuri Gagarin like ma’am?’ ‘Russian!’: Queen has scientists in stitches as she recalls her meeting with first man in space

  • Queen spoke via video link to British scientists, educators and schoolchildren
  • Sky At Night presenter, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, has same birthday as cosmonaut Gagarin, who died in 1968 – and asked monarch what he was like 
  • Gagarin had visited Buckingham Palace during four-day tour of Britain in 1961 
  • While discussing meteorite that landed in Gloucestershire earlier this week, the Queen said to one scientist: ‘I’m glad it didn’t hit anyone!’ 
  • Part of British Science Week – a celebration of UK role in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) 

The Queen had a team of scientists in stitches when they asked what Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, was like when she met him.

‘Russian!’ the monarch dead-panned, before bursting into giggles.

The 94-year-old sovereign was taking part in a virtual science showcase via video link with British scientists, educators and schoolchildren to mark British Science Week – a celebration of the role played in UK society by STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.

With a focus on space exploration, the session demonstrated how the science community has found new ways to promote science education during the pandemic.

Presenter of The Sky At Night, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, explained that one of the reasons she became a space scientist was because she shared a birthday – March 9 – with cosmonaut Gagarin.

(Gagarin embarked on a four-day tour of Britain in 1961, during which time he met the Queen at Buckingham Palace.) 

While taking part in a virtual science showcase via video link today, the Queen had a team of scientists in stitches when one of them asked what Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, was like when she met him. ‘Russian!’ the monarch dead-panned, before bursting into giggles. (Gagarin had embarked on a four-day tour of Britain in 1961, during which time he met the Queen at Buckingham Palace)


Presenter of The Sky At Night, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, said one of the reasons she became a space scientist was because she shared a birthday – March 9 – with cosmonaut Gagarin (above). Dr Aderin-Pocock said: ‘I believe, ma’am, that you met him. Can you tell us about that?’ The Queen replied: ‘I did. I did indeed yes. It was very interesting to meet him.’ ‘What was he like?’ Dr Aderin-Pocock continued. ‘Russian,’ said the monarch, prompting a roar of laughter

The 94-year-old sovereign chatted with British scientists, educators and schoolchildren to mark British Science Week – a celebration of the role played in UK society by STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths. Those present included Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock (bottom left); Prof Caroline Smith (top right), Alexandra White, Explainer, Science Museum (top centre); and Fiona Evans, Explainer, Science Museum (bottom centre). Pupils from Thomas Jones Primary School (top left) also took part

Dr Aderin-Pocock said to the monarch: ‘I believe ma’am that you met him. Can you tell us about that?’

‘I did. I did indeed yes. It was very interesting to meet him,’ the Queen replied.

‘What was he like?’ Dr Aderin-Pocock continued.

‘Russian,’ she said, prompting a roar of laughter. ‘He didn’t speak English. But no no, he was fascinating. And I suppose being the first one, it was particularly fascinating.’

Dr Aderin-Pocock replied: ‘Yes, yes. He’s been quite an inspiration for me getting into space science. I also think it must have been very terrifying to be the first one and not knowing what’s really going to happen.’

‘ Yes – could you come back again? Very important! ‘ the Queen laughed.

The Queen listened intently as Professor Caroline Smith, Professor of Earth Sciences and Principal Curator of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum, showed her updates from the NASA Mars Perseverance mission (also pictured)

Professor Smith is a member of the science team working on the mission to understand the geology of Mars and look for signs of ancient life, as well as test technology that could pave the way for human exploration. (Above, the rover carries out checks of its robotic arm on the surface of Mars on March 8)

Her Majesty spoke to Professor Smith about the discovery of pieces of a meteorite in the UK earlier in the week. Fragments of the rare meteorite (above) were discovered in a driveway in Gloucestershire. On hearing more about the space rock, the Queen said: ‘I’m glad it didn’t hit anyone!’

The Queen also listened intently as Professor Caroline Smith, Professor of Earth Sciences and Principal Curator of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum, showed her updates from the NASA Mars Perseverance mission.

Professor Smith is a member of the science team working on the mission to understand the geology of Mars and look for signs of ancient life, as well as test technology that could pave the way for human exploration.

Examining the Jezero Crater region where the Perseverance Rover has landed, the Queen remarked: It’s very rock-strewn isn’t it?’

Professor Smith explained that the areas is actually a crater that formed early in Mars’s history, around four billion years ago, and was once full of water.

‘And water obviously is a key element you need for life, so that’s one of the reasons why we’re going there, why we’ve chosen this specific part of Mars to explore,’ she said.

The Queen remarked: ‘I think it’s fascinating to see the pictures of Mars – unbelievable really to think one can actually see its surface.’

Her Majesty also spoke to Professor Smith about the discovery of pieces of a meteorite in the UK earlier in the week.

In May 2007, the Queen met NASA astronaut Mike Foale (also pictured), who introduced her to the crew aboard the International Space Station during her visit to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The Queen with British-born astronaut Foale in Mission Control at NASA in Maryland. She spoke to three astronauts on the International Space Station on the final day of a state visit to the US

Fragments of the rare meteorite were discovered in a driveway in Gloucestershire, which Professor Smith called a ‘heaven-sent opportunity’ for research, and described how the pieces are currently being curated by the Natural History Museum. 

On hearing more about the meteorite discovery, Her Majesty said: ‘I’m glad it didn’t hit anyone!’

Before the call ended, the Queen watched as children from Thomas Jones School in West London had the opportunity to demonstrate their ‘rocket mice’ experiment to Her Majesty.

The Year 4 pupils had taken part in a session for British Science Week with the Science Museum’s Learning Team ahead of the call with the Queen.

The Queen remarked: ‘It’s been very interesting to hear from you all. I hope the children have enjoyed it too – they might learn something from it as well. 

‘Thank you very much indeed. It’s wonderful work you are all doing.’ 

Her Majesty was presented with a set of Mars Perseverance rover face masks, sent from NASA headquarters to Windsor Castle, at the end of the call.

Above, the monarch at Buckingham Palace in 1970 with the crew of Apollo 11 – the first spaceflight to land humans on the moon, in July 1969. (From left, with the Queen, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin)

Professor Smith asked that one of the masks be gifted to The Duke of Edinburgh, given His Royal Highness’s particular interest in space exploration.

‘Bye!’ the Queen said and waved cheerily at the children, proving just how well she has got to grips with the new video-call technology.

Dr Aderin-Pocock said afterwards: ‘It was such an honour to speak to the Queen. It is one thing to visit Buckingham Palace but quite another to have a Zoom call with Her Majesty. I couldn’t quite believe it.

‘When I mentioned Yuri Gagarin to her, I couldn’t believe her answer. It was not what I expected! She made us all laugh. 

‘She has a wonderful sense of humour. And it makes you realise, given the fact that he died in 1968, how long she has been our monarch. She is living history, in fact. 

‘Her Majesty had a wonderful enthusiasm for what we had to show her and was fascinated by the Mars footage. I am a science communicator, so it was fantastic to speak to someone who was so interested. 

‘The children loved getting the chance to show her their experiments, although they took meeting the Queen far more in their stride than we did.’ 

Professor Caroline Smith added: ‘It was really exciting and very interesting and inspiring. Seeing the children’s pleasure and excitement at showing Her Majesty their experiment was wonderful. The Queen’s reaction was fabulous. 

‘It was a very surreal experience. I’m working from home and I am sitting there at my computer on the kitchen table and then the Queen appears on your screen! 

‘It was odd but very exciting and very special. Not something you can imagine doing but a real honour and a privilege to speak to the Queen and tell her a little bit about the work I am doing and that NASA is doing. It was really thrilling. 

‘She appeared to be fascinated and asked some really pertinent and interesting questions. Obviously, she was genuinely interested. 

‘The Yuri Gagarin moment was honestly so funny. The Queen has had a long interest in science and technology. One of her first engagements as Queen was opening an atomic power station. She met the Apollo astronauts… it is quite something to think what she has seen in her life.’

Yuri Gagarin: From farm boy to space icon

Yuri Gagarin (above, training in 1963) became a a Soviet national hero for being the first man in space, but seven years later he was killed in a plane crash, aged just 34

By NICK ENOCH for MailOnline

Yuri Gagarin, from Smolensk Oblast in modern-day Russia, became the first man in space on April 12, 1961, when he completed an orbit of the Earth in Voskok-1.

The then-27-year-old’s single orbit took 108 minutes – and captured the world’s imagination. 

The 19 candidates selected for the Vostok-1 flight were all test pilots, unafraid of speed, and slight enough in build to fit into the tiny 2m-wide (6ft) capsule.

The Soviet-era charm of Gagarin’s humble roots may have favoUred him over others, including his backup Gherman Titov.

Born in the village of Klushino, some 150km (95 miles) west of Moscow, Gagarin’s father was a carpenter and his mother a milkmaid.

The family was forced to live in a tiny mud hut when the village was burned down during the German occupation in WWII.

‘Yura (Gagarin) was a very quick learner. He assimilated everything new. His mind was stellar,’ veteran Soviet space journalist Vladimir Gubarev said.

Gagarin sung Soviet hymns during the last checks, strapped atop the 30m-high (98 ft) rocket that would blast him into space from the long-secret Baikonur cosmodrome on the Kazakh steppe.

‘Poyekhali! (Let’s go!),’ he cried, in a phrase that has become synonymous with Gagarin in Russia.

‘The most emotional moment was when we heard he was walking and waving; his arms and legs were whole.

‘We understood in one sigh that our five to six years of hard work had paid off and we had achieved something huge,’ veteran cosmonaut Georgy Grechko said.

The United States responded 10 months later, when John Glenn made the first U.S. orbital flight.

Gagarin became a a Soviet national hero for being the first man in space, but seven years later he was killed in a plane crash, aged just 34.

On March 27, 1968, he was undertaking a training flight in his MiG-15 plane at the Chkalovsky aerodrome near Moscow.

The wreckage and the bodies of Gagarin and his co-pilot Vladimir Seryogin were found 40 miles away. 

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