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Space Foundation did not strip Russian cosmonaut of honors

March 21, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first person to go to space 61 years ago, has been stripped of his honors by the Space Foundation because he is Russian.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. The Space Foundation changed the name of an annual fundraiser that was previously known as “Yuri’s Night,” but it didn’t strip Gagarin of any honors. The nonprofit, which advocates for the global space industry, continues to celebrate Gagarin’s accomplishments at events and with a display at its Discovery Center, a spokesman told The Associated Press.

THE FACTS: The Space Foundation’s decision to rename an annual fundraiser amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being distorted by social media users who falsely claim the organization stripped Gagarian of official honors.

“Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, has been stripped of his honours by the Space Foundation ‘in light of current events,’” read a tweet, which was shared across platforms in a screenshot.

“This is all so farcical,” one post commented. “Imagine pretending Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon because the US invaded Iraq decades later.”

But the Space Foundation isn’t pretending Gagarin wasn’t the first man in space, nor did it strip the cosmonaut of any honors. Instead, it changed the name of an annual fundraiser from “Yuri’s Night” to “A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next” after its initial social media posts about the April 3 fundraiser elicited negative responses about Russia on social media.

“Almost four weeks ago, we posted about Yuri’s Night and our social media feeds started to feed into a lot of anti-Russian anger,” Rich Cooper, vice president of strategic communications and outreach at the Space Foundation, said in a phone interview with the AP. “We wanted to not have our social media platforms become any type of venue for hate or animosity against anyone. We changed the name out of respect for that situation.”

Cooper said the narrative that the Space Foundation was stripping Gagarin of any honors is “totally false” and has prompted people to send hateful, belligerent and violent messages to the nonprofit’s staff. “No one can strip away” the honor of being the first person to go to space, Cooper said.

“Yuri Gagarin is in the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter of humanity’s exploration of space,” he said. “We celebrate that.”

The Space Foundation has not conferred specific honors to Gagarian but it has a display for the cosmonaut at its Discovery Center in Colorado Springs. The nonprofit has no plans to stop celebrating Gagarin’s accomplishments in any capacity, Cooper said. He said he wasn’t sure whether the annual fundraiser, which has been held eight times as “Yuri’s Night,” will return to its old name next year.

In a public statement issued on its website, the Space Foundation said this year’s annual fundraiser for education programs will still “highlight Yuri’s flight, as well as the anniversary of the Space Shuttle, the new Sally Ride Quarter, the Webb Space Telescope, and other space milestones past, present and those to come.”

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.