Video: Russians launch Gagarin into space

By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 4/12/2011 3:24:34 PM ET 2011-04-12T19:24:34

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

Centuries from now, it may be one of only a few Earth-born 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.

A young hero for the space race
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 mission. 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 a well-defined goal that lead to success.

Space projects that worked — Vostok, Apollo, Viking, the Mars rovers, and even the first shuttle mission (which took place 20 years to the day after Gagarin's flight) — were characterized by a crash style over a short span of years, were staffed by the best people drawn from many different backgrounds, were energized by the creative tension between schedules and safety, and were success-oriented. Space projects that have not worked lack some or all of these features, something that current space strategists need to notice.

A kick in the pants for America
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 President John Kennedy was confronted with a spiritual challenge that demanded energetic, visionary response.

Had the already-scheduled Mercury-Redstone flight by Alan Shepard been a few weeks earlier, in time to beat Gagarin's Vostok into space, few people would have later cared about the technical difference between suborbital 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. The need for human lunar missions might still be a subject for debate.

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, and many space visionaries nostalgically long for — or conjure up — another Vostok-type shock to spark a similar U.S. resurgence.

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In the meantime, international coordination and joint projects may be attractive for many reasons, but speed, economy and efficiency are not among them. All those justifications for the international partnership of the International Space Station have fallen flat. Fortunately, other unanticipated benefits have emerged to validate the space station strategy.

A crowning first for Russia
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. A 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. With the space successes of Sputnik, Lunik, Vostok and others, the Russians basked in worldwide admiration sparked by space-provided realities, 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.

Interplanetary fame for Yuri's name
Details of Gagarin's 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, athletes, actors and even nations slip from human memory, Yuri's name and smile will shine on, and rightly so.

This essay is an updated version of one that originally appeared in Space News, April 8-14, 1991.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Space News, April 8-14, 1991.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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