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astronautix.com Celebrating Gagarin's Anniversary


by James Oberg
Originally appeared in Space News, April 8-14, 1991
Reproduced with permission

James Oberg is a space engineer in Houston and author of books on the Soviet space program.

Every nation has its own glorious anniversaries to celebrate, but few are shared by the whole world. The 30th anniversary of manned spaceflight, April 12, understandably is a red-letter day in the Soviet Union, homeland of the world's first space traveller, but it is a logical candidate for world-wide celebration as well.

Centuries from now, it may be one of only a few earthborn anniversaries to be celebrated by off-world humanity. In anticipation of such a multiplanetary future for humanity, forward-looking people all over our present single planet should pause to consider What April 12, 1961, gave to Earth.

First, of course, it gave a young, cocky hero: Yuri Gagarin, the jet pilot who was selected to be first in flight and whose first words in flight -- "Poyekhali," or "Off we go!" -- perfectly epitomized the adventure. Gagarin was a confident, action-oriented young man, neither profound nor convoluted in his thinking, reliable and sturdy in his response to the challenge of the Vostok spacecraft. His image benefits from its eternal youth, since his early death a few years later preserved his fame against growing old. Such a man was needed to step across the frontier where unknown physical and psychological dangers lay in wait. Today we have forgotten just how much was feared about spaceflight, and that is another implicit tribute to what Gagarin did.

Gagarin's flight marked the most frantic lap in the space race, a competition that taught us lessons about space projects that are forgotten only at our peril. As with any military offensive, it is the short term concentration of forces and their coordination in pursuit of swell defined goal that lead to success.

Space projects that worked - Vostok, Apollo, Viking, even the first shuttle mission--were characterized by a crash style over a short span of years, were staffed by the best people drawn from many different backgrounds and were success-oriented. Space projects that have not worked (or are not working) lack these features.

Second, the Vostok flight gave the United States the last and greatest kick in the pants to launch a crew to the moon Newly inaugurated U.S. president John Kennedy was confronted with a spiritual challenge which demanded energetic, visionary response. Had the manned Mercury-Redstone flight been a few weeks earlier, in time to beat the Vostok into space, few people would have later cared about the technical difference between sub-orbital and orbital missions. The United States could have declared the space race won and gone on to other interests, and the decades that followed might have been filled with, at best, Gemini-class orbits and Skylab-class space stations.

It is a truism that the greatest athletic records are set when the best athletes compete head to head, each wringing out the superior performance from other competitors.

In the same vein, Vostok spurred on Americans via a combination of humiliation, egotism and outright terror, and similar motivations drove Soviet space officials. Today, the Cold War that fueled the space race is gone, but perhaps another Vostok-type shock may come again in the future, to spark a similar U.S. surge.

In the meantime, international coordination and joint projects are attractive for many reasons, but speed, economy and efficiency are not among them.

Third, Vostok gave the Soviets another, crowning first of which to be genuinely proud. Consider the preceding years, as the Russians struggled with their fear of The West and their inferiority complex toward Western science, technology and weapons. Phony series of what were called Russian firsts were a poor domestic propaganda substitute for reality, and xenophobia (stoked for political purposes by the Kremlin) expressed itself in both internal and external violence. But with the space successes of Sputnik, Lunik, Vostok and others, the Russians basked in new world-wide admiration, and they reveled in the unaccustomed respect.

This in turn coincided with (and may in no small part have contributed to) the relaxation of paranoia with which the Russians had viewed the outside world. Their space successes allowed them to feel they had come of age and could take their place in the big league of modern nations.

Details of that world-shaking, world-circling feat have faded over the decades. Contemporary Soviet propagandistic lies about the flight path and landing profile have been exposed, repudiated and forgotten. Equally shameful Western rationalizations, such as the false belief that the flight was a fake, or was preceded by the slaughter of a legion of secret cosmonauts, or was due only to the Soviet Union's capture of "better Germans" also have faded into deserved obscurity.

The fact that the pioneering flight was made is bound to survive in human consciousness indefinitely, as further details begin to fade. Uncounted millennia from now, when the names of 20th century presidents, premiers and even nations will slip from human memory, Yuri's name and smile will shine on, and rightly so.


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