On 12th April 1961, taking off from Baikonur in what is now Kazakhstan, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. His flight lasted a mere one hundred and eight minutes, but he returned to Earth the most famous man on the planet. However, within seven years he would be dead.
Gagarin was pushed by the Soviets as the epitome of the Communist ideal. Handsome, dashing even, a family man, he was paraded as a goodwill ambassador as everything that America wasn’t. And at that moment, America wasn’t winning the Space Race.
But as the sixties progressed, spurred by a JFK-inspired zeal, America set its sights on the moon, and slowly but surely they were to gain a lead they would never relinquish. However, despite the esteem which the Soviet government held him, the unconditional love was not returned. Gagarin became disillusioned with the cutting of corners and unnecessary risks his colleagues were being subjected to.
When it became clear that one of his closest friends Vladimir Komarov was due to take part in a mission doomed to almost certain failure, he railed and ranted against the establishment and command structure to no avail. The mission went ahead with inadequate control systems.
“You have killed him!” Gagarin shouted on hearing of the launch.
The mission was lost, Komarov died on re-entry.
Gagarin was removed from the space programme, upset that the secrecy veiling the Soviet space programme was shrouding serious shortcomings. He became, in short, an inconvenience to the Party. In 1968, on a routine training flight, his MiG-15 jet crashed, killing him instantly. Some say he may have been shot down. There were no official witnesses.
Forty years later, and again we mourn the victims of man’s never-ending quest to discover the Earth and what lies beyond it. The speculated cause of failure is, once again, the dangers re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Were corners cut? Were lives put at risk when they shouldn’t have been? In monetary terms, the NASA’s budget for safety is just a fraction it was fifteen years ago, and several ex-staff members are on record saying that America’s space programme is just “an accident waiting to happen.”
Space travel has always been a calculated risk. Men – and women – have been strapped to the front end of what is in effect an enormous bomb for the last four decades, and have trusted the judgement of the scientists that they will return to Earth in one piece. What they don’t need is the accountant looking over their shoulder making sure that everything is done within budget.
In the long term, mankind’s very future may depend on what is being done right now in space research. The ultimate achievement would be to find somewhere else to live, after all we may need it at the rate we’re messing up this planet. Seven people died, not just in the name of American pride, but in the name of the entire planet’s hopes and aspirations. In an atmosphere of war and anti-American feeling, it would be wise to remember that space belongs to us all, not just to whoever manages to plant a flag. The Columbia Seven: victims, heroes.