Fifty years ago -- on April 12, 1961 -- Yuri Gagarin set off from a launch pad at the Cosmodrome at Baikonur, near Lake Aral in what was then the U.S.S.R. He landed one hour and forty-eight minutes later in a farm field 400 miles southeast of Moscow. His countrymen shucked off the cold and snow, packing Red Square to celebrate the first human in space. Gagarin's report of what he did 190 miles above the earth: He sang. And what he wanted to do afterward: "I wish to dedicate my life, my work, my thoughts and feelings to the new science which is dealing with the conquest of cosmic space."
Six weeks later, on May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy gave his famous "To the Moon" speech, vowing to "catch up to and overtake" the Soviet Union in the "space race." It was a race the U.S. would flounder in for years. While the Russians followed up Gagarin with Alexey Leonov's first walk in space on March 18, 1965 and, on January 31, 1966, the first unmanned soft landing on the moon, America watched its Apolo 1 astronauts die in the burst of flames without the rocket ever having left the launch pad. The sense was that the space race symbolized the struggle between democracy and communism -- whoever ruled space would also rule the Earth. And indeed, when the U.S. was the first to put a man on the moon, in July of 1969, the news was downplayed in Russia, and greeted with silence in China.
I expect it's hard for those coming of age now -- in the days of Americans catching lifts from that same Baikonur Cosmodrome and cohabiting at the International Space Station with Russians, Europeans, and Japanese in what was once seen as a battleground -- to understand the competitiveness and sense of fear that first foray into space evoked in the U.S. My husband recalls -- as many Americans do -- the eerie feeling of knowing Gagarin was up there, looking down on us.
Gagarin died in a plane crash on March 27, 1968. He never lived to see a man step onto the moon, much less all the cooperative exploration of space that has followed. But I can't help imagining that if there are heavens -- beyond those which all the world understands in greater and greater detail every day, thanks in part to Gagarin's willingness to be the first to leave our atmosphere -- he is applauding those efforts, and urging us toward more.