I remember standing in a field in southern France one evening in the summer of 1962. My father watched a blinking red light slowly arcing across the night sky. “That,” he said pointing. “That is a sputnik.”
It could well have been the night flight from Paris to Algiers. But the uneasiness in his voice reflected deep anxiety among Americans that the Soviets were beating us in the space race.
This week, the glory days of the Soviet space program came back in a rush as Russians celebrated the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s Gagarin’s flight into space.
There have been fireworks, art exhibitions, a musical, space movies, special school programs, Soviet hymns played in the metro, official ceremonies designed to allow Russian politicians to rub shoulders with Soviet cosmonauts and endless grinding on TV of the old black and white footage of a man in an oversized round helmet, ensconced in a nose cone high atop a massive Vostok rocket.
He shouts hoarsely: “Poyekhali!” — “Let’s go!”
Up he went, this Soviet Christopher Columbus, into space, a place where no man had ventured before. When he came down, one orbit and 108 minutes later, he was on his way to being transformed into the most popular Soviet icon since Lenin.
With his easy smile and congenial nature, Gagarin was soon dispatched on a 27-nation goodwill tour. His friendly grin appeared on postage stamps the world over. As a poster boy for the Soviet way of life, Gagarin flashed perfect teeth, choppers that seemed to speak of the wonders of Soviet health care.
Americans, by contrast, were gnashing their teeth.
It is hard to recall, but this was a time when many people in the West feared that Soviet Union would beat the United States. One third of voters in France and Italy were voting communist. For fear of alienating European film audiences, the producer of James Bond movies altered the novel “From Russia with Love.” Instead of the British spy fighting Soviet counter intelligence, Bond battled SPECTRE, an imaginary crime syndicate.
With Gagarin’s April 12, 1961, flight, the world seemed to have proof of the superiority of Soviet science.
Gagarin’s flight spurred the U.S. Congress to approve huge space budgets. The payoff came at the end of the decade, when the United States placed the first man on the moon.To this day, Russians downplay this feat. Some will argue that the 1969 moon landing was a stunt filmed on a Hollywood movie set.
In Moscow, tickets to the Cosmonautics Museum show a photo of Russia’s “Luna Xhod,” or moon buggy. Located at the foot of a soaring metal sculpture of a rocket blasting into space, this newly refurbished museum presents exhibits and captions in such a way that visitors can easily leave without ever realizing that Americans really did land on the moon.
On Monday night, this museum was the setting for what may be a final reunion of veterans of the golden era of Soviet space exploration: Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and Thomas Stafford, commander of the first joint US-USSR space mission, known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
On Tuesday, this group went to the Kremlin for an award ceremony presided by President Dmitry Medvedev. Seated in front row was Gagarin’s widow, Valentina Gagarina. Forty three years after her husband’s death, she lives largely in seclusion in Star City, the cosmonaut compound outside of Moscow.
Gagarin never lived to see his star eclipsed by the 1969 American lunar landing. On March 27, 1968, his MiG-15 jet crashed on a training flight. As with many murky events in the Soviet era, conspiracy theories shroud the fatal crash of the handsome, 34-year-old space pioneer.
According to the leading explanations, his jet was either thrown out of control by the shock wave from another plane’s sonic boom, or he veered suddenly to avoid collision with a weather balloon.
Tuesday night, fireworks burst around his most prominent memorial: a titanium statue that soars 38 meters above Gagarin Square, one block from the Hotel Sputnik.