Yuri's Day From an Anti-Nostalgia Perspective

Our collective memory of Yuri Gagarin's 1961 flight glows with retrospective admiration. And not unwarranted: Major Gagarin's historic flight was not just a first spaceflight, but a full Earth orbit. The second, three weeks later, by America's Alan Shepard, was touted as the "free world's first man in space." But it remained sub-orbital.

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The retrospective warmth also arises from our privileged view on the course of events that followed Yuri's flight. It was a first of many human spaceflights, most notably our American Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. After Apollo, the Shuttle program gave us an astronaut corps that we could follow (on Twitter!) and ultimately an International Space Station to admire. The success of these programs -- especially Apollo -- cast a blanket of historical amnesia on the process that led to their achievements.

I believe that a peek under that blanket of amnesia can be instructive today.

In the years leading up to our 1960s space programs, despite Presidential initiative and public enthusiasm, the scientific community held human spaceflight to a standard of scientific inquiry that it did not meet. Absent a cultivated appreciation for the cultural value of human spaceflight, it was widely opposed.

"Science Takes Dim View of Man in Space" was an article in Missiles and Rockets in its special "Man In Space" issue of May 26, 1961, that followed Gagarin's and Shepard's flights. One of hundreds of similar articles that populated the mainstream print media, it's noteworthy for having appeared in the rocket industry's premiere weekly. Dr. Vannevar Bush, a 20th century national leader in science, said: "Suppose it would cost $1 billion to put a man on the moon. For the same money you could support a hundred research projects for 40 years...."

He was right, of course, but the evergreen springtime of cultural significance that bloomed from the Apollo program's moon landings created a different form of value, one that immediately overshadowed the objections of Bush and his legions of colleagues.

There were other forms of dissent from the highest ranks. A week after Shepard's flight, William Coughlin, the editor of Missiles and Rockets, editorialized that "the fact that [Shepard's flight] succeeded doesn't mean it was right." He explained that to follow Yuri's flight with a lesser achievement by the U.S., at mortal risk to Alan Shepard, was needless. Instead of celebrating, he wrote that "The stakes were too high, the risk too great."

And that vaunted Presidential initiative is worth a closer look as well: The week after Yuri's flight it hadn't yet manifested itself. "Apollo ... hardly exists except in paper announcements and a few key studies," muses James Baar, also writing in Missiles and Rockets, in the magazine's lead article about Yuri's historic flight. He noted that President Kennedy had recently added money to NASA's budget for speeding up propulsion programs, but had added nothing for Apollo. Of course that changed, and the change is what we remember.

But did you hear that? "Hardly exists except in paper"? That's our object lesson for today's space environment.

Presented by

Megan Prelinger is a citizen historian of space and technology. She is the author of Another Science Fiction and is co-principal of the Prelinger Library and Archives.

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