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Why the world still remembers its first spaceman

The legacy of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in orbit, will live long after presidents are forgotten. An essay by NBC News space analyst James Oberg.

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.

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.