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.


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.

It's a perverse symmetry that 2011, the half-century anniversary of Yuri's flight, finds the U.S. winding down our human spaceflight program. The last Space Shuttle will launch this summer. For the indefinite future, our astronauts will be thumbing rides on Russia's space system. Our governmental indifference to space is enormous; incremental politics have won over initiative and inertia has become a proven leader. We seem to have little forward movement in our human spaceflight ambitions.

But if April of 1961 can be looked back upon as just another moment in time, this can free our view of today. Set aside nostalgia! See in the course of history that "great moments" can be just as fraught, just as uncertain, as the moment we are living in today. Viewed that way, the very lack of definition that characterizes today's space program is itself an opportunity for leverage. We are in an "anything can happen" moment, not wholly unlike the moment of 50 years ago. Commercial spaceflight entrepreneurs are pushing that leverage point as hard as they can, and hopefully they will surprise us with the kind of abrupt shift in direction and ambition that manifested in 1961.

Personally, I am also on the side of science. Human spaceflight is a cultural project and must be understood and valued as such. Our desire to explore will ultimately, I believe, assert itself and find another peaceful expression out beyond the limits of orbital space. Today it's scientific exploration that needs a hotter advocacy.

In June of 1961 the Navy's navigation satellite Transit 4A launched, powered by a plutonium-238 powered radioisotope thermal generator. It was another first flight, the first for that kind of power supply. NASA soon adopted the technology and has flown 26 exploration missions over a half-century relying on it. The Voyager probe, that exciting craft that is now in its 33rd year of operation and on its way out beyond our solar system, is running on one.

Planetary exploration programs like Voyager are today facing an urgent fuel crisis. There is only enough plutonium-238 remaining in accessible stocks to fuel "two out of four NASA planetary missions due for launch before 2020."* The U.S. discontinued production of plutonium-238 in the 1980s. Since then we've been relying on Russia for our supplies, and currently trade agreements about it are stalled. Technological investment in alternative kinds of power supply systems are moving slowly, and some planned launches are in doubt.

I will spend the day thinking about Yuri's flight and its fantastic First. But when I plan for the next day, and the day after, I will advocate first for the planets, and then for the astronauts.

*Jim Adams, deputy director of NASA's planetary science division, quoted in Physics Today, January 2011, v. 64, n. 1, page 24 ("Shortage of Plutonium-238 jeopardizes NASA's planetary science missions" by David Kramer).