Wednesday, July 13, 2011

RIP Yuri Gagarin, Long Live the Russian Space Program

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight. Indeed, I am writing this on Tuesday April 12th, known as Cosmonaut’s Day in Russia in honor of the hour or so Yury Gagarin spent spinning around the earth in a tin can.
I have been fascinated by Gagarin since childhood, and not just because I come from Red Fife, where we had a communist local councilor even into the 1990s, and where the mining village of Lumphinnans has a street named Gagarin Way. Nor is it because of the First Spaceman’s mysterious early death. No; I think it’s because he came from the Dark Side. 

As a child of the Cold War, I grew up believing that the USSR was vastly inferior to the West. Behind the Iron Curtain there was neither freedom of religion nor of speech; individuals couldn’t travel abroad; consumer goods were in scarce supply and those that were available were of shoddy quality; the women were ugly; even the weather was awful. Russia was the West’s evil, decrepit shadow- a Darth Vader in adult diapers.

And yet, and yet…. Yury Gagarin proved that the picture was a little more complex. The grinning lad from the Smolensk region had snatched glory from the hands of the miserable loser Alan Shepherd. Sticking a weird recluse on the moon 8 years later couldn’t alter the fact of America’s disgrace. And let’s not forget- the USSR also put the first woman in orbit; built the best space stations; and it was a cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, who took the first stroll in space.

Thus when I found myself in Smolensk in 1997 I was keen to visit Gagarin’s birthplace, which was located in a neighboring village. Alas, I had arrived at a bad time. I could neither read nor speak Russian yet and none of the locals I met were even remotely interested in showing me the way.

At first this indifference on the part of the natives startled me, but upon moving to Moscow I discovered that it was nearly universal. One of the first places I visited in the city was VDNKh, a grandiose exhibition center dedicated to the “economic achievements” of the USSR, although by the mid-1990s all the Stalin era pavilions had been cleansed of their propaganda and filled with washing machines and fridge freezers instead.

It was a little surreal to see this communist mega-monument transformed into a giant bazaar, but the strangest spectacle was surely the Soviet space rocket which had a few Ford Escorts parked on the launch pad.  Well, it wasn’t going to take off any time soon, so why not transform it into an open air car showroom? 

Behind the rocket was something terribly sad: the Kosmos pavilion, a huge hangar formerly dedicated to the achievements of Soviet aeronautics and cosmonautics. It had played host to Russia’s first rave in the early 1990s- which almost makes sense- but had then been gutted of its exhibits so that people could sell microwaves out of its cavernous space. A couple of sad sputniks and a giant circular portrait of a beaming Gagarin still hung from the ceiling.

I was outraged. Yes, there was a lot wrong with the USSR, but the space program was a genuine triumph. There was no excuse for selling off these relics like so much old junk. (Later I realized that the scandal was not absolute. The nearby Museum of Cosmonautics still had some good exhibits- the stuffed corpses of Belka and Strelka were a highlight- but it was terribly small.)

What would Gagarin have made of all this? He wouldn’t have been pleased, that’s for sure. German Titov, the second cosmonaut in space, spent his latter years ranting about the collapse of the Russian space program. It’s all very sad.

And yet, in the last decade there have been some interesting developments.

For instance, the Russian Space Agency was a pioneer of ‘space tourism’- charging millions to put rich men in orbit long before Richard Branson ever latched onto the idea. But that’s not really what I’m thinking of.

Consider, instead, the American space shuttle – surely the coolest vehicle invented in the history of humanity, even if it is prone to exploding now and again. This year NASA will retire its fleet of shuttles and- incredibly- has nothing to replace them with. Apparently it costs too much- not so much Atlas Shrugged as Atlas Had a Little Cry and Went Home.

Contrast that with Russia which, when faced with a far greater financial crisis in the 1990s persevered- and is now the only country capable of transporting people to the International Space Station. Thus in spite of everything, it seems that the Russian space program is once again ahead of America’s- in some areas, at least.

Happy (belated) Cosmonaut’s Day, everyone!

Originally published 13/04/2011