Yuri Gagarin: When the Soviets Beat the Americans

Posted April 13th, 2011 at 3:10 pm (UTC+0)

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.

Yuri Gargarin, first man in space, orbited the earth on April 12, 1961

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.

Gagarin, with his easy smile, became the poster boy for the USSR

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.

Russian Soyuz Rocket emblazoned 'Gagarin' launches April 5, 2011 from the same Baikonour, Kazakhstan cosmodrome where Yuri Gagarin launched into space almost 50 years earlier. The rocket took two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut to the International Space Station, an orbiting research facility maintained by the space agencies of Russia, the United States, Canada, Japan and the European Union. Photo: AP

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

2 responses to “Yuri Gagarin: When the Soviets Beat the Americans”

  1. Pyotr says:

    The would be chief designer of the Vostock rocket had been tortured and was a slave labourer in GULAG when he had been seized by KGB before the cosmos became a priority to communists. When he asked why he had been detained the KGB leitenant hit him with a massive stapler or decanter( I dont remember – something that was near his hands on the table) right to the jaw and said “If we had the reason we would have killed you long ago…” So our scientists had to be “superior” otherwise they would have their jaws or testicles crushed with the stapler and shot without any sorrow.

  2. Gennady says:

    I would not agree with the statement “his star eclipsed by the 1969 American lunar landing”.

    With Shuttle programme scrapped and the US left with no orbit launchers, it seems that this time “the 1969 American lunar landing” has been eclipsed by Russian Soyuz Rocket emblazoned ‘Gagarin’ being launched April 5, 2011.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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