Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, as well as the first to orbit the planet, beginning what is widely considered the Space Age of human development and accomplishments. For the first time, we left the planet and set foot among the stars.
Well, okay, that’s being a bit dramatic. We’d been leaving the planet for quite a while, just not very far. In fact, when you attempt to define things distinctly, it all becomes kind of muddled. The frontier of “space,” as opposed to simply “in the air,” isn’t able to be defined at all except arbitrarily – the air simply keeps getting thinner and thinner as you get further from the surface. No, dammit, not even that, but further from the Earth’s gravitational center, and to be honest, this is more like the Earth-Moon’s gravitational center, which isn’t the center of Earth at all. But anyway, “space” is not really a line you can cross, it’s just a convenient figure for some particular purpose, which may vary with the purpose. The International Space Station, orbiting higher than Gagarin’s maximum altitude of 327 km (203 mi,) needs periodic reboosts in altitude (orbital velocity – I’ll deal with that in a later post) because atmospheric drag causes it to lose altitude. So it’s not really entirely out of the atmosphere, and Gagarin certainly wasn’t. But the air was thin enough that it’s all a matter of semantics, really. Science is kind of muddy that way.
Gagarin’s flight holds entirely different perspectives depending on what nationality you are. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States carried a lot of different baggage – to the populace of either country, it was a matter of pride, accomplishment, and a bit of “in your face” competition to demonstrate which country was the bestest. To the military of either country, it was a tense battle between superpowers to see if either would gain a significant weapons and intelligence advantage by utilizing orbital and sub-orbital vehicles. To many of those outside of these two, it was a spectator sport of watching two countries pouring huge resources into dominance issues, some of which might overflow into drastic effects for any country near either of them, or indeed, for most of the globe. The Cold War was in full force, and no one really knew just how likely global thermonuclear war was, but it certainly didn’t help to watch the posturing of the US and USSR.
In the US, Gagarin’s flight (being a major accomplishment of the Soviet Union) was both a blow to morale, and a galvanizing issue: okay, you guys got first person in space (and, for that matter, first orbital satellite, too,) but we’re going to top that. It’s hard to say if landing someone on the moon topped that, really. It was certainly a bigger accomplishment, but we’d already lost the race for three other firsts (satellite, human in space, human orbiting the planet, which we didn’t even accomplish until our second manned spaceflight, with John Glenn – Alan Shepard only did a suborbital hop, less than Sputnik.)
What’s funny is, while I was growing up the US perspective was pushed fiercely, and the US accomplishments were focused upon. As a follower of the whole space program, I was disturbed to find out many years along that we were behind the Soviets for much of it. Not disturbed from the accomplishment or pride standpoint, but because the info was seriously downplayed in our media, even in the various books I grew up with. I knew Shepard and Glenn, Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins, but had never heard the name, “Gagarin.” Or how about “Tereshkova” – know that one? You should – Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and while I’m slightly against even making distinctions of gender, the Soviets did it in 1963 – the US didn’t follow suit until almost exactly twenty years later with Sally Ride.
It’s all a remarkably interesting, and active, point in world history, and certainly worth knowing more about. Even without the various dubious “accomplishments,” the space programs contributed tremendous amounts to our development and technology, which is where the real accomplishments lie. Younger people (younger than I, anyway) perhaps take it for granted that we have satellite communications, GPS navigation, and photos of other planets and moons, but it wasn’t all that long ago that these were nothing more than science fiction – notice the older sci-fi movies that show a bare, unclouded Earth from space! It’s very damn cool, and whether you want to credit Gagarin as the leader or not, it’s all part of a vast culture of technology that is of great historical significance. Check it out!