50 years ago today Yuri Gagarin strapped into a tin can atop an ICBM and became the first man to be launched into space. I cannot begin to imagine the bravery it required of him, and every astronaut and cosmonaut, to ride atop such thunder, the fires of hell burning at their back, the frozen depths of space staring them in the face.
The Mercury Seven, the Sochi Six, these men were from another era. An epoch of square jawed, crew cut, supermen. They may as well have come from Krypton with the Letter S emblazoned on their chest. Cooper, Schirra, Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Slayton and Carpenter. Gagarin, Kartashov, Nikolayev, Popovich, Titov, and Varlamov. Their names and visages will forever be chiseled into granite.
It was 1961. The war years were behind us all, and the U.S. and U.S.S.R were at their height of powers locked into a chess match for world dominance. The space race was just one aspect of the rivalry, but the most profound and visible one. For the next 10 years the lead would sway back and forth until man finally set foot upon the moon.
This was to be a new age. A fulcrum point about which mankind was to turn itself, and enter into a new era. Sitting in a car on a dusty road in rural Iowa, a farm boy could listen to the static crackling on the AM radio, as an announcer passed along the news of Gagarin’s triumph. Looking up into the fathomless depths of space, and the multitude of stars, he could dream of amazing things. We no longer knew our limit.
But like Icarus our pride seemed to foretell our downfall. What happened? What changed? The 60’s and the 70’s were a great convulsion for both sides in this cold war. I think any of us would be hard pressed to say that the next 50 years lived up to the expectations of that farm kid as he stared up into the heavens. Where are our Mercury 7, and our Sochi 6? Where have our heroes gone?
Sitting at my desk in the fluorescent buzz of my office, I stare into the blinking void of this inner space. Searching for the exact point at which we turned off of that road that led into the heavens, and onto this path that leads inwards. The electrons twinkle like a million stars, pushed close together, and flickering out the images of my thoughts as I type. I look not skyward for answers, but deeper within my own self absorption. Is it any wonder we are lost?
Where have you gone Yuri Gagarin. Our nations turn their lonely eyes to you.