K zvёzdam. To the stars. The motto sums up the efforts of Soviet industry to conquer the cosmos. During the Cold War, everything was a cause for possible confrontation, and the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States of America was also powerfully manifested in the field of science and technology. ‘Space race’ is the expression by which the aerospace competition of the two 20th century superpowers is known.
Today, 12 April 2021, is the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. The Soviet pilot was the first in the history of mankind to leave the Earth for space, spending one hour and forty-eight minutes in the capsule of the Vostok 1 spacecraft, completing an entire orbit around the Earth.
Gagarin was a young man of humble origins, studying at a technical school in Saratov, far from home, to become a metal worker. Here, almost by chance, he became interested in flying. A few years later he chose to join the air force. He wanted to become a pilot at all costs as if he had known what he was destined for. After obtaining his pilot’s licence, he decided to apply for the space programme, for which he was eventually selected.
Gagarin was a cosmonaut, not an astronaut. A ‘navigator of the cosmos’ rather than a ‘navigator of the stars’. Even simple words can be coated with political significance, exaggerating differences in even the smallest details. Space travellers from the USA and allied countries will always be astronauts, those from Russia – once the Soviet Union – cosmonauts. Gagarin, more than Sputnik and more than Laika, was the true victory of Soviet technology over US technology. To get a man into space and bring him back safely to earth was the greatest challenge. The space race may have ended with the US conquest of the Moon, but all the steps that had to be taken before the Moon could be reached were achieved by the Soviet Union first. From the first intercontinental ballistic missile – let us not forget that the military aspect always had to be taken care of first: the first to be launched into space were not communication satellites, but missiles – to the first artificial satellite, from the first animals in space to the first man and woman, from the first probes on the Moon, Mars, and Venus to the first space station orbiting the Earth.
The phrases uttered by the first man who was able to gaze upon the earth from space, help shape the way we see our world today. “The sky is very black, the Earth is blue”: hence the famous definition of the Earth as the “blue planet”. “He who has not met God on Earth will not meet him in space either”, underlining the fact that what matters is not only what you see but that you do not really have to go too far to find him. “There’s no God up here” was allegedly attributed by propaganda to the cosmonaut, a faithful Orthodox Christian, but never actually uttered.
Today, Gagarin is remembered as a great, great socialist hero, a Soviet hero, a Russian hero, the darling of an entire people. But he is also a hero and a source of inspiration for all those who populate the Earth. He died at the very young age of 34 when his plane crashed into the ground. Flying was always at the centre of his life.
But we want to remember him as the first man in space, ignoring his citizenship and forgetting for a moment the very strong political significance of his feat.
“From up here, the Earth is beautiful, without borders or boundaries”.