Cosmonautics Day, Yuri’s Night

Commemorating Sixty Years of Humans in Space, 12 April 2021
International Day of Human Space Flight

“Looking at the earth from afar you realize it is too small for conflict
and just big enough for co-operation.” – Yuri Gagarin

1965 Soviet Union 12 kopeks stamp. Cosmonautics Day. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Sir Isaac Newton is famously attributed, in his 1675 letter, with the metaphor that: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can certainly appreciate his allusion to the intellectual and scientific giants who have changed our world. And yet the metaphor has earlier attribution that includes Christian humanist Guillaume de Conches, and implictly accords greatness to people from many backgrounds and cultures across humanity. In 1961, a young Soviet pilot became one such giant by literally going boldly where no one had gone before.

I am lucky to have been born – with barely one fortnight to spare – into a generation that will, in the mists of history, be remembered as one which truly took a step into a new frontier and maybe changed forever what it means to be human. This revolutionary change was spearheaded by 27 year-old Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, born into a family with seemingly evocative Biblical overtones (his parents were a carpenter and a dairy farmer) whose trip on 12 April 1961 aboard Vostok lasted just 89 minutes. With his short cosmic jaunt, he plugged into the timeless dreams of philosophers and stargazers, and tapped into our most primal dreams of flight:

YURI GAGARIN Maj. Yuri Gagarin during training, April 1961. The black-and-white photo has been colorized. AP Photo / TASS / Mattias Malmer (public domain). Planetary Society.

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

– from “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee

Poet John Gillespie Magee recognises the common human need for awe, rapture and transcendence. We can all sense the wondrous, and feel transformed by its touch, even those of us who do not assign divine agency to such profound emotion. Thus the voyage of Yuri Gagarin into our night sky allowed us all to revisit the wide-eyed curiosity, exhilaration and pleasure of a child dipping their toe into the gently lapping waves of a cosmic sea shore.

While writing such testimony, I resist the conceit of mythopoesis, the process of creating myth; a human tendency that was evident in those who sought to recast Gagarin as a Russian icon, or ascribe him an aristocratic family background. Nevertheless, the reality is that Gagarin was a genuine pioneer and hero, and that his was a dangerous journey aboard a flawed, fragile capsule hoisted aloft by explosive propellant. The background stories behind his life, flight, and tragic death, are all shrouded in Soviet-style mystery, and certainly help to demythologise his narrative. In the early days of the space race, cosmonauts and astronauts were referred to in the USA as people with ‘the right stuff’, able to tap into inner reserves of resilience and indomitability. Gagarin’s background may have prepared him for such a hardy adventure. William Blake alluded to noble human attributes that can be found within the souls of such giants:

“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?”

The Tyger by William Blake.

The boldness of such human spirit is demonstrated by the many changes that have served as a quantum leap for our species. These include the discovery of fire, our first modern DNA ancestral male or female, the invention of language or the printing press, the development of ancient/indigenous cultures, the invention of agriculture or cities, the abolition of slavery, gender equality, the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the invention of antibiotics or the Internet; or any of many other possible watershed moments in our history. Each of these has, in its own way, redefined what it is to be human – as may our evolution from Earthbound species to space-faring one, even though that evolution may seem imperceptible at the time to those who experience the change. Already, NASA has catalogued over 2000 spinoffs from the space program that have enhanced our lives and our world – many of these being ubiquitous items in our everyday space-age lives.

So it will be in the galactic era to come. Our human ability to dream and to grow will ensure that, pending survival from pandemic and parochial war, we have a potentially wonderful future ahead. Claiming a habitat in space may ensure our long-term survival as a species should a meteor or microbe threaten planetary extinction here on Earth. The harshness of environmental conditions on other worlds will hopefully make us mindful of the need to wisely and optimally utilise interplanetary resources, while also ensuring the backbone of a thriving space economy and perspective that has the potential to benefit all of humanity and other life in our planetary ecosystem. Learning to terraform other planets may give us the ability to also terraform our home planet back from climate catastrophe.

Yuri Gagarin, AZ Quotes

Any suggestion that space exploration is somehow a waste of time or money is really quite problematic for a number of reasons: it invokes the hypocrisy of creationists, religious fundamentalists, and anti-science denialists who wish to promote some form of luddite society while still enjoying the benefits of our scientific age; and it stifles the human impulse to look up in awe and seek to explore and evolve. It ignores the lessons of history that science has improved the quality and quantity of our lives, and that those societies which resist progress actually go backwards. Perhaps most pointedly (in contradiction to the populist maxim that the money spent on space should instead be spent on the poor), the space program actually has the potential – when adopted widely and wisely – to assist developing nations, to supply valuable infrastructure and to help the environment. We cannot fight poverty if we economically, scientifically or intellectually impoverish ourselves.

1961 Gagarin Souvenir
(Personal collection)

On this anniversary, let us celebrate the fact that humanity took its first tangible step into space on the first Cosmonautics Day, 12 April 1961 – the day when Yuri Gagarin soared (however momentarily) into space, and changed our world. Celebrated annually across Russia and aligned nations, Cosmonautics Day was officially declared International Day of Human Spaceflight in 2011. The occasion has been supplemented since 2001 with the addition of Yuri’s Night, described as ‘space-themed partying with education and outreach‘. Our future is coming, and we should prepare. Let us honour the dreams and wonderment of billions of people down through the millennia, as they looked up at the cosmos and into our possible future:

May our next trip into space be bold and ambitious, reflective of the utterance: “Poyekhali!!” (“Let’s go!”) that began Gagarin’s launch in 1961 – and turned our species forever from Homo sapiens into Homo galacticus.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

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