The Human Face of Space Exploration: A Message of Hope

For those both old enough to remember the flight of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and fortunate enough to work in a museum, the 50th anniversary of Colonel Gagarin's mission offers a chance to place the last five decades of space exploration history into special context -- and what emerges is a message of hope.


Recall that Gagarin's April 12 flight took place only three and a half years after the Russian Sputnik-1 became the first human-made object to orbit the Earth. That earlier accomplishment had frightening overtones for many in the U.S. -- not so much because of Sputnik itself but, rather, because the Russians demonstrated the rocket technology to loft an object from their country to any place in the world. Defense analysts knew immediately that a satellite developed for peaceful purposes could easily be replaced by a weapon targeted at the heartland of America -- and this meant big trouble.

From the perspective of a kid growing up on the east coast of the United States in the 1950s the tension between the former Soviet Union and the United States felt tangible and oppressive. More than a few Americans built bomb shelters in the hopes of riding out the nuclear war that some thought unavoidable. Meanwhile, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev rattled the Russian saber and the result was fear in the hearts of the American people and gasoline thrown on the fires of the Cold War.

So it was when Gagarin's Vostok-1 spacecraft flew on April 12, 1961 with one principal difference -- Yuri Gagarin put a human face on what had formerly been seen as menacing technology that could only lead to war between the two countries. It mattered not (at least to a 12-year-old) that Gagarin was Russian and lived in a foreign land thousands of miles away. What mattered was that he went to space and lived to tell us all about it. He smiled at the cameras when he landed and he waved to the people he met in parades and when the news came on TV. It was truly exciting and just 23 days later (on May 5) American Alan Shepard rode a Mercury Redstone rocket to become the second human in all of history to leave the Earth's atmosphere and venture into blackness of space.

What transpired during the 14-year period after Gagarin's flight was both subtle and amazing. In spite of the public blustering and tensions associated with the Cold War, American and Soviet scientists and engineers managed to pull off a stunning victory. On July 15, 1975, a crew of three U.S. astronauts blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to rendezvous in space with two Soviet cosmonauts as part of a joint mission involving the development of a docking module designed to connect the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft and permit the crews to visit each other in orbit. An amazing technical feat for sure -- but even more impressive was the political statement at the heart of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).

Now, on the 50th anniversary of Colonel Gagarin's historic flight, it's perhaps instructive to reflect on the years leading up to this moment from the special perspective of a museum curator. Visible each day in the California Science Center's collection of spacecraft are the reminders of the Cold War era and the evidence of collaboration between Russia and America. The full-scale replicas of Sputnik and Explorer-1 are on display at one end of the gallery, and the actual, flown Apollo Command Module from the historic ASTP mission is at the other. Collectively, they represent the bookends of space exploration spanning the period of competition vs. collaboration between Russia and the United States.

Most inspiring is the ongoing collaboration, spurred by the ASTP mission and ultimately inspired by Colonel Gagarin. No longer involving just Russia and U.S., the International Space Station includes participation from a total of 15 nations in the construction and operation of this amazing orbital facility. It is truly a model of international collaboration in the exploration of space and what it means for us all is significant.

Fifty years is a long time and the fortunes of nations rise and fall as a result of enormously complex forces over which we either do not have or have abdicated control. Nations can pit themselves against each other for all manner of reasons. Wars start and they end. Hatred and discord arise out of ancient grievances and upset what appear to be stable societies -- sometimes for a short duration and at other time for protracted periods.

The important message on this day, the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight, lies in what is possible should the players choose wisely when afforded the opportunity. Gagarin did in fact put a human face on space technology and Alan Shepard quickly followed. Between the flights of these two national heroes and the upcoming final Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station there were some wise and prudent decisions that managed to turn what could have been a destructive engagement between two nuclear-armed societies into one of the most visible and beneficial collaborations imaginable. If that kind of result can arise from what was clearly a debilitating atmosphere of fear in the aftermath of Sputnik then there is legitimate reason for hope in the midst of current world events.

Thanks Yuri, we're in your debt. Hopefully we'll again choose wisely.