Remembering Gagarin's legacy

Posted on: 12 April 2011 by Alexander Hay

Let's rediscover the ambition that launched Yuri Gagarin into space

If we're not careful, this is as far as we'll ever get

Oscar Wilde was given to hyperbole, and many other vices. Still, it's hard to argue with his maxim that while we're all in the gutter, some of us are looking towards the stars.

Fifty years ago today, one such gutter dweller found himself leaving earth orbit for the first time. We were from that point on a space-faring species.

Of course, Yuri Gagarin's lot wasn't entirely a happy one – after his landing, the Soviet Union entrapped him as a sort of living propaganda tool until his 1968 death in a plane crash.

But that would be to dismiss the drive and courage of a man who really did achieve something remarkable. A colleague even vowed to go on a space mission that would lead to his own death than risk the life of his friend and hero.

For all Vladimir Komarov's bravery, however, he is little known in the West, and what killed him and consumed Gargarin's life is now considered blasé and pedestrian.

Half a century later and something has indeed changed. Firstly, we (or rather NASA) got to the moon and the momentum behind space travel has largely withered away. For all the occasionally spectacular images of Earth from space, most of the public have lost interest.

This hints at a deeper malaise. To be mad enough to be fired into space, out of the atmosphere and into the midst of cold hard vacuum and cosmic rays takes a pioneer spirit that it is no longer fashionable to have.

We're far too post-modern to actually believe in all that 'one giant leap' doggerel. Never mind that space research has yielded benefits across the board, from medicine to electronics. We're simply unable to value it any more.

It's not entirely our fault, though. The space race was more about politics than space, the ramming of the Stars and Stripes into the selenian soil as the USA got to the moon first was more about sticking it to the Eastern Bloc than furthering mankind overall.

But with that aim gone, the political will went with it, though it's telling how many countries still equate space with national prestige. It would be a bitter outcome indeed if NASA was overshadowed by Indian and Chinese space programmes trying to outdo each other instead.

Would NASA be able to compete with them, however? The Obama administration slashed its funding to the bone in a roundabout way of saying that space is neither big nor clever. What the golden age of space exploration had, by contrast, was enough political will to support the enterprise and plenty of men willing to go up in the rockets.

Gagarin and Komorov, and their American rivals, such as John Glenn and Alan Shepherd, all belonged to the first generation of aviators to break the sound barrier and who were old enough to remember WW2. They had a reasoned understanding of risk but also the stomach for it.

Such a unique combination of shared experiences and outlooks helped the first astronauts and cosmonauts approach space not as a health hazard or budget bugbear but as a challenge, a duty and, indeed, an adventure. Vanity and courage often go hand in hand.

Yet there has been a more profound shift since 1961. Alongside our lack of interest is a deep, pathological fear of risk. Beyond depraved airport security and the sort of form-filling squeamishness that would make Orwell faint, it manifests itself as a deep antipathy towards space.

Some argue that sending people up there is pointless, expensive and hubristic, others would rather let robots do the exploring (despite evidence to the contrary), while yet more think the money should be spent on something else or that humanity doesn't deserve to leave the Earth, that we are too corrupt and destructive to be let loose on the cosmos.

None of these arguments stand up. Sometimes we need to try things even though they grant no immediate benefit, and perhaps space may give us the perspective our myopic planetside lives presently lack. It's the universe or nothing.

But if space exploration is to break out of its paramilitary, superpower-politics ghetto, it needs far greater public interest and involvement. Even Britain, a stronghold of anti-space sentiment, has an impressive space industry. Space exploration offers vast possibilities and commercial opportunities. For that to happen, however, we need to develop some self belief. Far too many of us remain content to wallow in the gutter.

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Alexander Hay

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