For a fleeting moment, his achievement was a unifying symbol of human progress, not just national strength ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
Londoners walking along the tree-lined Mall leading to Buckingham Palace will have noticed a slightly odd new statue outside the British Council’s offices. Unlike the usual fussy tributes to naval commanders and politicians, this sculpture features clean lines and bold curves. It depicts a man in some sort of flight suit standing on top of the Earth. A looping line surrounds the planet, capped off with a four-pointed star. The style puts one vaguely in the mind of heroic Communist monuments, although on a more human scale. That is fitting, for it is a copy of a Soviet-era work celebrating the achievements of Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who in 1961 became the first human being to travel into space.
The statue is the most visible part of an exhibition put on by the British Council, a cultural-exchange outfit, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. The exhibition is modest, filling a room in the Council’s offices with artefacts, pictures and documents from the Soviet space programme. What is striking is how primitive the technology now looks—indeed, the British Council’s swish lobby looks more sophisticated than the kit that took Cosmonaut Gagarin off the planet. The ejector seat, in particular, is a bolted metal contraption festooned with large, round gauges that looks every inch the piece of rough, unrefined 1950s technology that it is.
The pictures tell a similar story. Shots of Gagarin training in a centrifuge, or ascending the launch tower, look modern and even familiar. But a picture of the Vostok capsule after its landing shows a scorched, roughed-up metal ball, looking less like the sleek, silvery spaceships of popular imagination and more like a piece of industrial junk that could not possibly have flown in space, let alone contained a passenger.
Despite its modesty, the exhibition is, in its small way, groundbreaking. Some of the items on display—including the ejector seat—have never before been allowed out of Russia, says the Council. That they should be sent to Britain is impressive, given the frosty state of relations between the two countries since the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, an ex-KGB man, in London. A tax dispute with Russian authorities has forced many of the British Council’s offices there to close.
But Britain has links with Cosmonaut Gagarin, as one of the first countries he visited after his return to Earth. Half a century later, the official reaction to his visit—as revealed in government letters from the time—looks chilly and rude. One letter from Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the day, argued that Gagarin should be fobbed off with a group of no-name MPs. It was, after all, the height of the cold war. Gagarin’s flight was meant to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet technology and, by extension, of the Communist way of doing things. Extending too warm a welcome to the Soviet conqueror of space would have been seen as a betrayal of the Western alliance.
The new Soviet spaceman
Nobody told the British public. As the open-topped Rolls- Royce in which he was riding reached Hammersmith, on its way to central London from Heathrow Airport, the streets were crowded with people. Schoolchildren took the day off, and factory workers sacrificed their lunch break to catch a glimpse of the first ever human space-traveller. Wherever Gagarin went, the crowd carried him beyond his intended destination. In Manchester, the one-time foundryman was made an honorary member of the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers; he wore the medal for the rest of his visit.
Throughout it all, Gagarin remained smiling. Either a natural-born PR genius or excellently trained, he exuded sunny charm and a warm lack of affectation. Seeing the Manchester crowd gathered to meet him despite the pouring rain, he asked that the roof of his car be put back, saying “If all those people are getting wet to welcome me, surely the least I can do is get wet too!” His visit temporarily thawed the frosts of the cold war—a moment of unity that would be fleetingly repeated eight years later, on the world tour of the Apollo 11 astronauts. For a brief time, the conquest of space was seen as a human triumph, not a national one.
Such noble sentiments did not last. Like America’s Right-Stuff Mercury astronauts, Gagarin was a perfect tool for Soviet propaganda. He was born on a collective farm in the Smolensk oblast that was later occupied by Nazis during the second world war. He and his family lived in a dugout trench while the German soldiers brutalised the locals, and then his elder brother and sister were deported to Germany as slave labourers. After the war he was apprenticed to a steel foundry in Moscow, and then to a technical school on the Volga, where on weekends he learned to fly. He eventually ended up at a military test-pilot school. That rise from humble origins was useful. Gagarin, aged 27, was allegedly granted the first spot in the Vostok programme, ahead of his compatriot Gherman Titov, because Titov’s relatively middle-class background made for less stirring propaganda.
The other side of the space race
Although it is often remembered as an exercise in technology, the space race was just as much a competition in public relations. Half a century on, NASA remains a byword for eggheaded technical excellence. But the Soviet space programme has much less resonance, in the West at least. That is a shame, because although the USSR lost the race when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, it was the Soviets that kicked the whole thing off, and they kept their lead for many years. Today, with the retirement of America’s space shuttle, Russian spaceships derived from venerable 1960s designs offer astronauts the only way to reach the International Space Station.
Partly, this reflects different attitudes. NASA has always been a relentlessly self-publicising organisation. The Soviet programme was much more secretive, with its successes announced only after the fact. Even Soviet citizens heard about Gagarin’s trip only after he had made it safely into orbit. That is not to say that propaganda took a backseat—it took years for the Soviets to admit that Gagarin had ejected from his capsule rather than riding it all the way to Earth, a requirement for those wishing to break official altitude records. But the veil of secrecy, and the barriers thrown up by the cold war, have meant that the Soviet half of the space race remains, by comparison, a largely unknown story. The British Council’s exhibition goes some small way towards redressing the balance.
Picture credit: Getty Images, British Council, RIA Novosti