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Space station crew marking big space anniversaries

Posted April 11, 2011, at 10:39 p.m.

On the eve of two prominent space anniversaries, the six humans circling the Earth said Monday they will join in the celebrations from the best vantage point of all — orbit.

Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of man’s first journey into space and the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch.

“We’re going to spend the day [Tuesday] recognizing it in probably the best place you possibly can, that’s on orbit and looking at our beautiful Earth,” American astronaut Ronald Garan Jr. said in an interview with The Associated Press. He arrived at the International Space Station last week.

The space station’s Russian commander, Dmitry Kondratyev, said the human dream of flying to the stars came true with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight on April 12, 1961. Twenty-three days later, American Alan Shepard became the second man in space.

“Fifty years is a short period of time in history, but look at that leap from a small spacecraft to the huge International Space Station,” Kondratyev told the AP. “We hope that during the next 50 years, another leap that is not less than has been done, will be done.”

As for the shuttle anniversary, Garan said Columbia’s launch on April 12, 1981, inspired him to become an astronaut. He yearned to be an astronaut as a young child, but the dream went away until Columbia blasted off on the first shuttle flight.

In Russia, space officials and astronauts from around the world arrived in Moscow to pay tributes to Gagarin.

Svetlana Savitskaya, who flew two space missions in 1982 and 1984 and became the first woman to make a spacewalk, harshly criticized the Kremlin for paying little attention to achievements in space 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 Russian parliament from the Communist Party.

Russia has done virtually nothing to design a replacement to the 43-year old Soyuz spacecraft, Savitskaya said.

“If we won’t be catching up on what we have missed in the last 20 years … we will be left with nothing,” Savitskaya told a news conference.

Japan raises nuclear crisis to highest level

TOKYO — An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 jolted Tokyo and its environs on Tuesday.

Shortly afterward, it was reported that Japan decided to raise the severity level of the crisis at its tsunami-stricken nuclear power plant to 7 — the highest level and equal to the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. The crisis level at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, which was badly damaged in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami last month, had been at 5.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency said the quake struck at 8:08 a.m. local time Tuesday. The epicenter of the quake was located just off the coast of Chiba, east of Tokyo. There were no initial reports of injuries or damage in the prefecture. No tsunami warning was issued.

In addition, the operator of the crippled nuclear power plant said workers discovered a small fire near a reactor building at the complex but it was extinguished quickly.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the fire at a box containing batteries in a building near the No. 4 reactor was discovered at about 6:38 a.m. Tuesday and was put out seven minutes later.

It wasn’t clear whether the fire was related to the earthquake. The cause of the fire was being investigated Tuesday.

Subway blast kills 11 in Belarus

MINSK, Belarus — An explosion tore through a key subway station in the Belarusian capital of Minsk during evening rush hour Monday killing 11 people and wounding 126. An official said the blast was a terrorist act.

President Alexander Lukashenko did not say what caused the explosion at the Oktyabrskaya subway station, but suggested outside forces could be behind it.

Deputy Prosecutor-General Andrei Shved said the blast was a terrorist act, but did not give further details.

— from wire service reports

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