Fifty years ago today, the headline on the front page of the New York Times read, “Soviet Orbits Man and Recovers Him; Space Pioneer Reports: ‘I Feel Well’; Sent Messages While Circling Earth.”
It was the first time any human being had gone into space.
The human being was Yuri Gagarin, a Russian pilot in the Soviet Air Force. He orbited the planet once, in the process flying higher and faster than any human being before him.
At the time, his nationality seemed to be the most important fact about his achievement. The Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a desperate space race — almost exclusively for propaganda bragging rights. President Kennedy’s famous challenge to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s was an attempt to set the finish line sufficiently distant so that the United States, starting from behind, might still have a chance to win.
The space race ended in July 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. The United States won.
That rivalry seems unimportant now, with Americans and Russians and other nations working together on the International Space Station (ISS). Late last year, the ISS marked ten years of continuous human presence in space.
Yet, without that rivalry, I doubt that humans would have gone to the Moon yet. And that would be a shame.
More important than the technical advances called forth by the drive to get to the Moon, more important than the scientific knowledge beamed back by scientific instruments and brought back in boxes of Moon rocks, was this: astronauts could look up and see the whole Earth.
During the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut Jim Lovell realized he could cover the entire planet with his thumb. Everyone any of us has ever heard of — all of history, science, the arts, philosophy; all the nations, all the causes, all the beliefs and faiths; all the great achievements, all the great crimes — all of it on that little blue sphere suspended in the blackness of space.
I think that has something to do with why Americans and Russians work side-by-side with people of other nations on the ISS.
We couldn’t see our rivalry in proper perspective until the rivalry lifted us high enough to truly see ourselves.
Russians certainly have reason to be proud of Yuri Gagarin. Fifty years later, as a fellow human being, I’m proud of him, too.