[April 12, 1961] Stargrazing (the flight of Vostok)

The jangling of the telephone broke my slumber far too early.  Groggily, I paced to the handset, half concerned, half furious.  I picked it up, but before I could say a word, I heard a frantic voice.

“Turn on your radio right now!”

I blinked.  “Wha..” I managed. 

“Really!” the voice urged.  I still didn’t even know who was calling. 

Nevertheless, I went to the little maroon Zenith on my dresser and turned the knob.  The ‘phone was forgotten in my grip as I waited for the tubes to warm up.  10 seconds later, I heard the news.

It happened.  A man had been shot into orbit.  And it wasn’t one of ours.

Last night, Major Yuri Alekseyivich Gagarin blasted off from the Soviet Union in his Vostok spacecraft (Vostok means “East” in Russian, and it is in that direction that the rocket flew).  He circled the Earth once before landing with his vehicle.  Protected only by steel walls and a space suit, he made it to orbit and back.  I had to sit down, so dizzying was the news.

I’ve now had a few hours to think about this event and determine just what it means for all of us.

For ages, humanity has dreamed about journeying to outer space.  We have now finally taken our first shuffling steps off of our world. 

Half a century ago, a Russian named Tsiolkovsky determined the first practical way to get there — at the tips of rockets.  So it is appropriate that the first human to traverse the regions beyond our atmosphere was a Russian. 

For the Communists, it is yet another victory in a race that as yet has no finish line.  A demonstration of their superior rocketry, or perhaps a greater willingness to gamble with a person’s life. 

For the Americans, it is a challenge to meet, not a discouragement.  “It doesn’t change our program one bit,” said Marine Colonel John Glenn, who may well be the first American in space.

For science fiction fans, the impact is tremendous.  We have been writing about space travel for decades like a virgin writes about intercourse: avidly, but without experience.  Just the other month, there were published stories involving the predicted psychic and physical dangers of space, too horrible to be surmounted.

And yet, Gagarin did it.  If he can, others will.  Space may not be safe, but it is survivable.

Soon, we will have a flood of new data, and our s-f stories will change accordingly to accommodate.  I expect we’ll have fewer tales of astronauts who jaunt out in their rocket as if they’re out on a Sunday drive, more stories of space programs and the thousands of engineers who make up the bulk of the logistical iceberg. 

Some have opined that the more we explore the frontiers that were once solely the province of fiction, the less magical we make our world.  I must disagree.  This new frontier has hardly been touched, and even when we have thoroughly mapped the regions of low orbit, there is then high orbit, the Moon, the planets, the stars.  Each frontier is a gateway to the next.

Today, science fiction is fact, and the domain of science fiction has broadened.  I’ve never been more excited.

17 thoughts on “[April 12, 1961] Stargrazing (the flight of Vostok)”

  1. In the short term, this may be the Russians getting a bit ahead, for really it’s a huge first step for all mankind. I’m sure we’ll get someone up soon, and just getting there is far from the whole story. It’s what you do with it once you get there that really counts.

    But for now, congratulations to Major Gagarin. The world, the future has changed over night. This is a date that should be remembered for the rest of human history.

  2. They’ll be passing the vodka around over in Russia, and they should be.  A full orbit, too.  Hell, I hope NASA sent them a few bottles.

    It’s finally here. We’ve left the planet.  All of us. 

    Man, what we’re going to have in fifty years …

  3. Great news!
    Looking forward to seeing, in a generation or two, Gagarin teaching/leading people from both sides of the Curtain.

  4. I don’t yet seem to be detecting the sort of shocked reaction here in the USA that greeted Sputnik.  Maybe Americans are starting to realize that space is open to everybody.  In any event, congratulations to the first human being to orbit the Earth.  (Just typing those words gives me a chill!)

    1. I think we’ve gotten better at emotional damage control.  The news said we won’t have a man in orbit until the end of the year, maybe early next year.  We’re supposed to have a suborbital shot up this month, though.

    1. I know! I WISH IT HAD BEEN US! But – I can’t really care that much, I’m just amazed and thrilled it’s been done at all. It’s one thing to be thinking about it and following the math and watching rockets go up (and, sadly, all too often, not go very far up), but it’s another to know someone actually did it.

      It’s no longer theory, it’s fact, and as I write this two days later, I’m still just buzzing with excitement. I’ve been teaching my students nothing but spaceflight terminology for the last two days, and I love it!

      C’mon, home team, it’s time for us to put up some points too!

        1. Oh dear, here I am so late with correspondence again – it’s been midterms, and the crush of grading just never ends!

          That’s certainly a crystal ball I’d like to have! But honestly – I truly hope not. I am a bit of a lefty – and we generally are, here, James Farley wasn’t entirely wrong – but we’re not _that_ kind of lefty, and we have no time for Uncle Joe’s iron-fisted shenanigans, or those of his descendants. Even my furthest-out left-leaning friends are Trotskyites, and I have all sorts of fun breaking that down; I’ve read all those books, girls, you can’t gloss over anything with _me_.

          It’s terribly fun, and we have Political Lunch about one a month just to do it.

          That isn’t to say we can’t learn a lot from non-communist socialist-flavoured efforts. Japan’s MITI – Ministry of International Trade and Industry – has been doing really good work in helping guide Japanese domestic industry, without nationalisation or dictatorial orders. A degree of political balance to prevent the sort of de facto rule-by-fiat which tends to emerge in areas of unrestrained capitalism.

          And I’d think the experiences of the last 70 years would make that perfectly clear, but lately we’ve been having a lot of fans of the Ayn Rand novel _Atlas Shrugged_ show up at lunch, and that’s certainly been an odd experience. Selfishness as a virtue? It’s a fascinating thought-experiment, absolutely! But I hope it never catches on.

  5. Vice-President Johnson is said to be deeply worried.  “Ah do not want to go to bed by the light of a Communist Moon!” he was reported as saying.  The President is said to be conferring with various experts for a proper response.

    Robert A. Heinlein claims that on May 15, 1960, while in Soviet Latvia he met some Russian army cadets who were rejoicing over the launch of a manned orbital mission.  Soviet sources claim it was an unmanned test, similar to American unmanned tests of the Mercury capsule.

  6. The Russians may have been the first but I am sure we will do better than them soon.  I know we can with the help form the former German rocket scientist that we brought over after the war.

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