Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Yuri Gagarin—the first man in space.
Yuri Gagarin holds a rare place in human history, of a type which is shared by the first person to tame fire, to discover crop cultivation, to invent the wheel. Each of these events demarcates a profound change in human history. Fifty years ago, on April 12th, 1961, the Russian hero Gagarin did just this, by becoming the first man to leave the surface of the Earth, take the first steps beyond the bounds of our home planet, and to fly through space.
At that time the cold war at its coldest—school children were preparing for nuclear holocaust by hiding beneath their desks. The dangerous struggle between east and the west was expected to erupt inevitably into nuclear war at any time. Against this background Gargarin climbed into his small, cramped Vostok 1 capsule and waited for the signal to launch.
It is true to say that his flight was a propaganda stunt, and that without the superpower competition Gagarin might never have flown, however, this does not negate the accomplishment of the event. On a personal level Gagarin faced the unknown—a danger which no other man had faced, bravely, but his far greater accomplishment, on a species level, was that he advanced humanity to a journey which has still just begun, and which will one day carry humans to other planets, and hopefully, even further.
After his one space flight Gagarin was kept earthbound, as his loss would have have been disastrous to Soviet propaganda, however, Yuri was not to enjoy a long life. In 1968, at the age of 34, he died in a place crash, on a routine flight. Without this early death it is entirely feasible that he could have lived past the fall of the USSR, and long enough to celebrate with us today. Sadly, this did not occur.
I recall reading several decades ago, in a book by Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke's prediction that the 1960s accomplishments in space would dominate the history of the 20th century. Then, years later, in a later book by Clarke, I recall reading that he now believed that his earlier prediction was incorrect. He wrote that the 1960s space achievements, of Gararin, of Armstrong and their fellows, were obscured, even buried by the wider political and military conflicts of the century. I recall that on each occasion I agreed with Clarke, each prediction seemed correct when made. By the 80s Gagarin's flight and the Moon landings were abandoned, and seemingly forgotten. What was still ongoing was the cold war, which again, as always, threatened to erupt into open conflict. This dominated the thinking of the time.
Yet, with added perspective and understanding, I now agree with Clarke's first prediction, however, dramatic and important contemporary events seem at the time, they fade quickly. A century from now Nixon and Brezhnev will be largely forgotten, but the achievement of Gagarin will be remembered. The first man in space.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin 1934-1968. RIP.