Experts and schoolchildren joined the Queen in a virtual event to mark British Science Week, showcasing the latest pictures from Nasa’s mission to Mars and classroom rockets made by the pupils.
An image of the Winchcombe meteorite that recently fell to earth in the Gloucestershire town of the same name was shown to the Queen, who said: “I’m glad it didn’t hit anyone.”
The video call symposium was held on Wednesday, just a few days after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview in which they accused the royal family of racism and a lack of support.
The Queen met the first man in space – Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – in 1961 soon after his historic mission, and when she was asked during the video call what he was like, she made everyone laugh by replying: “Russian.”
She explained he did not speak English, and added: “It was very interesting to meet him, and I suppose being the first one, it was particularly fascinating.”
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a scientist and co-presenter on the BBC’s The Sky At Night programme, said of Gagarin: “It must have been very terrifying to be the first one, and not really knowing what was going to happen.”
The Queen quipped: “Well, yes – and if you could come back again. That’s very important.”
Gagarin went on a world tour soon after his space mission in April 1961 and was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace by the Queen, and he also met then prime minister Harold Macmillan.
Afterwards Dr Aderin-Pocock said: “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, Head of Earth Sciences Collections and Principal Curator of Meteorites at the Natural History Museum, said: “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.”