April 12, 1961.
Exactly 50 years ago.
It was a Wednesday.
I was in 1st grade.
That particular day, I think it was sometime right after lunch, our teacher pulled her Earth globe down from a shelf and held it out for us to see. She seemed pretty excited about something.
She told us that something important had just happened – the Russians had launched a man named Yuri Gagarin into space this morning, a real-life spaceman (the new vocabulary word for that day was “Cosmonaut”) and that he had gone all the way around the Earth and landed, all in less than two hours!
To me this made perfect sense. “Flash Gordon” was showing on TV on Saturday mornings, and I knew all about Flash, Dr. Zarkov, the lovely Dale Arden and the evil Ming The Merciless. Rocket ships, and spacemen, and the amazing adventures they had – this was familiar territory to me.
What I did not know was that the Earth globe I had seen above the teacher’s desk was really a model of where I lived. Oh sure, I’d seen pictures of Earth globes in movies and heard people make references to Earth being a planet, but the idea that the globe the teacher was showing us was a model of a real planet, just like GI Joe was a model of a real guy, that was a new concept to me.
My teacher drew her finger in a circle around the globe and said, “Boys and girls, that Russian Cosmonaut went all the way around the world in a spaceship and he was traveling thousands of miles an hour in outer space!”
Wow! What a concept! I live on a planet in space and real spaceships can take spacemen around it? Cool! That made quite an impression on me.
At the ripe old age of six and a half I was coming to grips with the difference between fiction and reality, so I knew that it was important that what my teacher was saying was real, and not a story like my TV shows.
The idea that truth can be more exciting than fiction – that also made an impression on me that day.
To be a child in 1961 meant that the Russians were the “bad guys,” and for them to have sent a spaceman, er… Cosmonaut, around the world was upsetting to a lot of grownups. If they were upset by this, then it’s something for me to be worried about, too.
This was my first awareness that the “Space Race” I had heard grown-ups mention in their conversations was a real thing that I could understand, and care about.
A man had actually been in space and gone all the way around the world.
The world would never be the same.
All kinds of 50th anniversaries relating to significant moments in the exploration of space are fast approaching, and I’m looking forward to writing a little about them as they arrive.
Yuri Gagarin’s flight of April 12, 1961 was the equivalent of a loud “Bang!” from a starter’s pistol at the beginning of an important race. From that day on I was hooked, and space news has riveted my attention and shaped my life ever since.
If you can, reflect on what you can remember doing and thinking about in April of 1961. If you were not around then, contemplate how you might have reacted, in the middle of the “Cold War,” to the news that the Russians had done something hugely important and that dramatically and fundamentally changed how humans thought about themselves and their relationship to the universe.
The “Space Race” is an amazing chapter in U.S. history. Gagarin rightfully belongs at the beginning in Chapter 1 of that fascinating story.
What were the events leading up to the Space Race?
What were the challenges, politcial and technological, and the milestones?
Why did we care so much about it?
Is there truly such a thing as a “finish line” or “winning” in this kind of a race?
Who did the racing, and what does it mean for us, then and now, to compete in such a race?
I believe these are all ideas worth thinking carefully about, and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight makes for a good day to start having those thoughts.