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The cosmic traveler

Sixty years ago today, for the first time in history, a human boarded a rocket and flew into the cosmos beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The first-ever traveler into space was a 27-year-old Russian pilot named Yuri Gagarin, and he embarked on his cosmic journey from the Tyura-Tam missile range in the Kazakhstan region of the Soviet Union.

By any measure, Gagarin’s flight was a remarkable technical accomplishment. In a matter of decades, Russia had gone from an agrarian country ruled by Europe’s last autocrats to the world’s first space power. In the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet engineers had made modest progress with developing rockets, primarily for military use but also to pursue the dream of human spaceflight first expressed by Russia’s pioneering space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who died in 1935. After World War II, captured German rockets and some German engineers provided valuable technical knowledge to the Soviet rocketry program. In the late 1940s, the Soviets flew copies of the German V-2 missile, which they called the R-1. Later, they modified the design of the R-1 into the higher-performance R-2 missile, then set about to make their own wholly original designs. By 1957, the Soviets had the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. After a couple of successful test launches, an R-7 deposited into orbit the world’s first artificial satellite, PS-1 or Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957.

The R-7 had the power only to launch small payloads into orbit, but a modified version with an added upper stage could launch a spacecraft big enough to carry a man. The rocket and the spacecraft were both dubbed Vostok (“East”). The spacecraft consisted of two parts: a spherical crew compartment and a cone-shaped instrumentation module. The crew compartment carried the cosmonaut (“traveler to the cosmos,” a Soviet or Russian astronaut) into space and back down into the atmosphere, while the instrumentation module was designed to separate from the crew compartment and burn up in the atmosphere on reentry.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union were preparing to launch people into space in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but the two countries took different approaches to their programs in many respects. One of these was publicity. As I’ll write about next month on the anniversary of the first American’s flight into space, the US government conducted its space program in full view of journalists and the public, and the first astronauts were made into instant celebrities.

The Soviets, on the other hand, operated their program in the utmost secrecy. They didn’t even announce the launch of Sputnik 1 until after the satellite had completed its first orbit of the Earth. (Meanwhile, the first American attempt at launching a satellite, Vanguard 1, blew up on television.) While the American astronauts blinked in the daily glare of spotlights and flashbulbs, the first group of Soviet cosmonauts were selected and began training in secret. As the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin would become a celebrity—paraded in Red Square in front of adoring Soviet crowds and sent on international tours—but it was only after his launch that the public even knew his name.

Because of this secrecy, the Soviet public and the wider world could only know about Vostok and other early programs through Soviet propaganda, which portrayed every cosmonaut as a model communist and every mission as a triumph of socialism. It would not be until thirty years after Gagarin’s flight, with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the archives would start to open, giving researchers the chance to view actual documents rather than propagandistic distortions.

In the intervening thirty years, as Asif Siddiqi notes in the preface to his book Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974, early Soviet space accomplishments had become mythologized in Russia and dismissed in the West as mere background to the first American landing on the moon in 1969. “It is not surprising that this is so,” Siddiqi writes. “With little film footage, paranoid secrecy, and no advance warning, the Soviets themselves were mostly responsible for consigning these events into that blurry historical limbo between propaganda and speculation. They eventually lost any claim to resonance that they might have had otherwise.”

As the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, April 12 is celebrated as Cosmonautics Day in Russia and by some space enthusiasts around the world as Yuri’s Night (although if you ask me, I prefer to call it Cosmonautics Day). There will certainly be official commemorations of the anniversary in Russia today, and just as certainly there won’t be any commemoration of it on an official level in the United States. Rather than seeing the flight as a human accomplishment—the first time in history that a member of our species left this planet—Americans continue to view Gagarin’s flight through the lens of Cold War competition.

The Space Race continues to dominate American perceptions of the Space Age, even though there has been far more cooperation than competition between Russia and the United States in human spaceflight. The Space Race lasted at most thirty-four years, from the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even during the period of competition, US-Russian cooperation in space began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. After the fall of the Soviet Union, space cooperation continued with Shuttle-Mir in the 1990s and the International Space Station from 2000 to present. Rather than seeing Yuri Gagarin as a Cold War enemy, it’s time for Americans to start thinking of him as a future friend in space.

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project American and Soviet crews

The first joint US-Russian space program was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, launched during the period detente in the Cold War. A Soyuz spacecraft from the USSR and an Apollo spacecraft from the United States linked up in orbit and the crews exchanged greetings and visited each other’s spacecraft. This is a group photo of the two crews, the Americans on the left in brown and the Soviets on the right in green. (NASA photo)

Apollo-Soyuz Test Project illustration

An illustration of the Apollo spacecraft (on the left) linking up with the Soyuz in ASTP. (NASA photo)

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with space station Mir

Space shuttle Atlantis docked with Russian space station Mir during the Shuttle-Mir program, July 1995. The Shuttle-Mir program ran from 1995 to 1998. (NASA photo)

Expedition One crew in Red Square

After Shuttle-Mir, joint crews took up residence on the International Space Station, starting in November 2000. Here the Expedition One crew are seen visiting Red Square in Moscow. The Russian crew members are on the left and right and the American member is in the center looking at the camera. (NASA photo)

Introducing a post series, “1961: The First Men in Space”

Sixty years ago, in the year 1961, four human beings traveled into space. These space-farers were all men, two from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and two from the United States of America. One of these men, Yuri Gagarin, became on April 12, 1961 the first human to leave planet Earth in human history. All four of them were at once taking part in a great human adventure and fighting the Cold War on behalf of their respective countries.

In 2021, I am commemorating sixty years of human spaceflight with a post series here on WillyLogan.com, “1961: The First Men in Space.” On the anniversary of each of the four spaceflights, I will publish a post that uses the flight as a starting-point to discuss some aspect of the history and memory of early human spaceflight. The series kicks off tomorrow, the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight, and continues May 5 (Alan Shepard’s flight), July 21 (Gus Grissom), and August 6 (Gherman Titov).

Space Shuttle Challenger taking off for the STS 51-L mission, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

Two tragedies, Challenger and Columbia

Eighteen years ago today, on Saturday, February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the STS-107 mission. Burning debris of the shuttle rained down on Texas. All seven crew members on board were killed in the disaster. The accident investigation afterward concluded that a piece of insulating foam that had fallen off the shuttle’s external tank at launch had damaged the leading edge of the port wing; on reentry, hot gases entered the damaged wing and tore the shuttle apart.

It was the second time that a space shuttle had been destroyed on a mission, leading to the deaths of all of its crew. Seventeen years earlier, on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch on the STS-51L mission. One of the solid rocket boosters had burned through the O-ring joining two of its sections, creating a jet of flame that blew up the external tank and destroyed the shuttle.

The Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

The Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. (Source: NASA)

Christa McAuliffe training in the space shuttle simulator for the STS-51L mission. She would have been the first elementary teacher in space. Her backup for this mission, Barbara Morgan, later became an astronaut and flew into space on the STS-118 mission in 2007. (Source: NASA)

Christa McAuliffe training in the space shuttle simulator for the STS-51L mission. She would have been the first teacher in space. Her backup for this mission, Barbara Morgan, later became an astronaut and flew into space on the STS-118 mission in 2007. (Source: NASA)

Both tragedies were important events for NASA, leading to redesigns of the shuttle and managerial reorganizations to prevent the kind of group-think that had allowed the disasters to happen in the first place. Challenger was replaced by a new shuttle, Endeavour, while the Columbia tragedy led to the eventual retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet and their replacement by commercially-operated space capsules.

For the American public at large, though, the two tragedies had markedly different effects. Challenger was a national calamity that left deep emotional scars on the public psyche. The launch was carried on national television and literally millions of people watched the astronauts die in real time. These included school children in their classrooms, because one of the crew members of Challenger was America’s first teacher-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. Challenger exploded before I was even born (I was born later that year), but I feel like I remember it because it was talked about as I was growing up.

The loss of Columbia was also a national tragedy, but its influence was not as long-lasting. Columbia made front-page headlines for weeks after the disaster. Like Challenger, Columbia got a eulogy from the president (an uncharacteristically eloquent George W. Bush, quoting from Isaiah 40). The astronauts’ names are inscribed on the space memorial mirror at Kennedy Space Center and there is a monument honoring them at Arlington National Cemetery. But Columbia isn’t remembered like Challenger was, even though the tragedy is more recent. I doubt that children born in 2003 grew up hearing about Colombia like I heard about Challenger.

Why is Columbia not as well-remembered as Challenger? I think there are several reasons. One of them is that the American public was not as aware of the mission as it was going on. It was not high-profile because there was no teacher-astronaut among the crew. Even though I was a space enthusiast, I hadn’t really been following the mission and I’d only read one newspaper article about it. No school children watched Columbia crash in their classrooms. (It was a Saturday anyway)

When Challenger exploded, it was something new under the sun. America in the 1980s had been unstoppable. The economy was booming. The American military was stronger than ever. The Space Shuttle was making access to low-earth orbit routine and easy. There was nothing we couldn’t build or do—until the Challenger tragedy showed that there must be limits to the United States’ technological hubris. (The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the same year had a similar effect on the Soviet Union.)

When Columbia crashed in 2003, America was no longer unassailable. The country was in the midst of crisis. Columbia crashed less than a year and a half after 9/11 and a month and a half before the US invasion of Iraq. The United States was preoccupied.

Do a web search for Challenger and the ill-fated space shuttle will show up on the top of the results. But if you search for Columbia, you will get results for a river in the Northwest, multiple US towns and cities (including the capital South Carolina), a country in South America (albeit with a slightly different spelling), a sportswear company, and on and on. You may never get results for the shuttle, unless you make your search more specific.

This is an accident of vocabulary, but it is also telling. Perhaps there is only so much room in American cultural memory, and one tragedy must represent several. Challenger represents itself but also space tragedies in general. When we remember Challenger, in a way we are remembering Columbia as well.

The crew of STS-107, in their official NASA portrait before their mission. (Source: NASA)

The crew of STS-107, in their official NASA portrait before their mission. Left to right: David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool, Ilan Ramon. (Source: NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia lists off on its last mission, January 16, 2003. (Source: NASA)

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off on its last mission, January 16, 2003. (Source: NASA)

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