Yuri’s Night: A low key celebration of one of the USSR’s few success stories
|April 15, 2012||Posted by Tom Soden under science|
On April 12, 1961, in the barren desert steppe of Kazakhstan, a large rocket carrying a lone man blasted off into the unknown. The rocket, a modified R7 Semyorka (NATO designation: SS-6 Sapwood), was little more than a converted nuclear missile, carrying a small, undeniably Soviet-looking Vostok spacecraft instead of the 3-ton thermonuclear warhead for which it was intended. The occupant’s name, of course, was Yuri Gagarin.
I’m telling you all this because last Thursday was the 51st anniversary of the first human spaceflight, a landmark achievement probably still unparalleled (except perhaps by the moon landings) in human history. Sure, technologically Sputnik was more important (for showing that orbital spaceflight was possible), but there is a big difference between sending up an 80kg aluminium basketball and a human being who expects to return to Earth mostly intact. That both were done within four years of each other in complete secret by a country that had a universal reputation for backwardness and a less than perfect (to say the least) human rights record is a sheer miracle.
The USSR had a space program that was underfunded, undervalued, and maintained mostly out of propaganda value by various competing technological bureaus – quite literally the polar opposite of NASA. It was mainly held together by the brilliance of a small, terminally ill ex-Gulag prisoner who as chief designer was so vital to the program that his identity was only revealed after his death in 1967. Sergei Korolev, the man in question, remains relatively obscure worldwide but unlike his slick American counterpart Werner Von Braun he was more or less singlehandedly behind most of the “firsts” the USSR claimed in space in the 50s and 60s: first animal in space, first man in space, first spacewalk… Much fuss is rightly made of the American achievements, such as projects Mercury and Apollo, but many forget that before 1968 the Russians had pretty much won. It was only in that year, with the death of Korolev from lung cancer and the disastrous accidents with the N1 (the Soviet answer to the Saturn 5, and in my opinion much cooler) that the Russians ground to a somewhat inevitable halt. Although the Russians kept sending cosmonauts into space, and even sent the first robotic rovers to the moon in 1970, the damage was done. The Americans landed on the moon, and never again would things look as good on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Today, the situation is completely different. With the loss of the American space shuttle programme, Russia is now the sole nation routinely supplying the International Space Station with crew via its Soyuz aircraft, itself approaching its 50th birthday. With the danger of manned spacecraft becoming no more than a living memory, Yuri Gagarin still seems to be a symbol of the glory days of spaceflight: a small and cheerful man with a memorable smile (his words on blast off were reportedly: “Let’s go!”), the constant publicity and propaganda tours, including to the UK, eventually took their toll, and he never went into space again, eventually being killed in 1968 when his MiG 15 crashed in uncertain circumstances.
Since 2001 April 12th has been celebrated as Yuri’s Night, a worldwide event that raises awareness of space exploration – and to a lesser extent the science fiction that it inspired. Although little known, in an age when India and China look set to dominate the final frontier, it’s good that the people who made it possible are getting some recognition.