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Fact check: Space Foundation removed name of Soviet cosmonaut from fundraiser title – USA TODAY

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The claim: The Space Foundation stripped the honors of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin

The Space Foundation – an internationally-known space advocacy nonprofit based in Colorado Springs – found itself at the center of a social media firestorm after news spread online that it had renamed a fundraiser amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Some posts claim the nonprofit “stripped the honors” of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin due to “current world events.” Gagarin, who made the first trip to outer space in 1961, is widely viewed as one of the founding fathers of space exploration.

“The first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, has been stripped of his honours by the US-based Space Foundation, which censored his name ‘in light of current world events,'” reads a March 20 Facebook post. 

The same claim has spread widely on Facebook and Twitter over the past few weeks. But it misconstrues what actually happened.

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The Space Foundation did not revoke or rescind any formal awards from Gagarin, nor did it remove the Soviet cosmonaut from event programming. The organization changed the name of a fundraising event this year from “Yuri’s Night” to “A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next.” Rich Cooper, a spokesperson for the foundation, told USA TODAY the event will still honor Gagarin.

USA TODAY reached out to several social media users who shared the claim for comment.

Space Foundation changed fundraiser name, didn’t ‘strip honors’

Prior to this year, the Space Foundation’s annual fundraising event had been called “Yuri’s Night” since its inception nearly a decade ago. Typically held on the eve of the international Space Symposium conference, the event raises money for the Space Foundation’s science, technology, engineering and math programs, according to the nonprofit’s website.

A number of social media posts about the name change cited a note from the foundation in which it said it was removing Gagarin’s name from the fundraiser title “in light of current world events.” That note was posted in early March, according to an archived version of the Space Symposium agenda. 

By March 19, the Space Foundation had deleted that note and released a statement elaborating on the name change. The nonprofit said in the statement that, when advertising this year’s event in late February and early March, it “started to receive a number of negative posts about Russia.” 

“Wanting to ensure the focus of the evening remained on our goals – the kickoff of the 10th anniversary of Space Foundation Discovery Center and raising funds for our education programs – we made the decision to change the name to ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next,'” the statement reads.

Cooper told USA TODAY the decision was also made to prevent animosity during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We know emotions are very, very high,” he said. “We didn’t want anyone to be anti-Russia or anti-anything else on our page.”

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“Yuri’s Night” will still celebrate Gagarin’s trip to outer space, as well as “other space milestones past, present and those to come,” the foundation’s statement says. The foundation also has not changed any archives or exhibits related to Gagarin, such as a bust of the cosmonaut that stands in the entrance of the Discovery Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“It’s our belief that we can celebrate Yuri and a whole lot more,” Cooper said, adding that he’s not sure whether the name change will be permanent.

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that the Space Foundation stripped the honors of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The Space Foundation changed the name of a fundraiser from “Yuri’s Night” to “A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next.” It did not revoke any awards, nor did it remove any exhibits or mentions of Gagarin in its Discovery Center.

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