April 12, 2011
The new President of the United States, the trim young John F. Kennedy, had promised to get America moving again. But barely three months into his term, the fat, bald, warty Nikita Khrushchev was crowing that his Soviet Union had bested the Yankees in space. Party boss Khrushchev moved aggressively to show that Communismnot democracy--was the wave of the future.
Yuri Gagarin was a cosmonaut who first rocketed into orbit on this day fifty years ago. Until he went up, Americans knew only the word astronaut for these intrepid space pioneers. Gagarin was young and daring, to be sure. It took real courage to go up in a space capsule. American test pilots may have sneered at astronauts as spam in a can, but Gagarin was a skilled Soviet air force officer.
He was also a committed atheist. This was important to Nikita Khrushchev. He had been desperately searching for a way to legitimize Communist rule after he delivered his secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in Moscow in 1956. That secret speech denounced Stalinthe brutal ruler of the USSR of nearly thirty years. Stalin was attackedonly after he was safely dead for three yearsby his successor Khrushchev not for the murders of four million people in the Gulag, and not for his persecution of Christians and Jews, but for his shooting of thousands of loyal Communists. To show his courage, Khrushchev ordered Stalins mummified body taken from its honored place in the Kremlin next to that of Leninand cremated.
When Yuri Gagarin returned to earth, he was put before the international press corps. What did you see up there, was the shouted question. One suspects today the question was planted. The answer surely was scripted: Nyet bogaNo God.
The launching of Yuri Gagarin into space aboard Vostok 1 (East 1) set off a furious effort in the U.S. President Kennedy was determined not to be outdone by the forces of international Communism. He convened panels at NASA and among Cabinet committees. What can the U.S. do to respond to this propaganda coup?
The answers were not encouraging. Scientists, engineers, and NASA officials informed the president that the Soviets were ahead of us in space and it would be yearsyears!before we might catch up. Moreover, the U.S. had committed itself under President Eisenhower to doing everything in public. That included broadcasting our embarrassing failures. The Soviets had the advantage of secrecy. If any cosmonauts died before Gagarins stunning success, we probably will never know about it.
Khrushchev needed successes in space to compensate for his abysmal failures on earth. Despite boasting we will bury you, the Russian people lived in Third World poverty. No bread and no freedom. At a U.S. trade fair in Moscow, Khrushchev bragged the USSR would pass the U.S. by 1980. One brave Russian wrote in the Americans guest book: Drop me off in the United States as we pass by.
Marxists rejected any thought of religion. Success in space would enable man to believe in himself...People who now believe in God will reject him. Man will be stronger than God. Communist sympathizers around the world took heart from Soviet successes in space.
But President Kennedy boldly went where no man had gone before. Informed by NASA that the U.S. might be able to get to the Moon before the Soviets, but that it would take years, J.F.K. went before Congress and threw down the gauntlet. The United States, he promised, would go to the Moon before the decade was out.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, three American astronauts aboard Apollo 8 went to the Moon. As they came around the dark side, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders read from the King James Bible: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth... We had won the space race. In just seven months, Americans aboard Apollo XI would touch down on the Moon, taking that small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind.
The night we landed on the Moon, someone put flowers on President Kennedys grave at Arlington National Cemetery. They left a note: The Eagle has landed. Today, Google remembers Yuri Gagarins flight with a visual tribute. Lets hope that in memorializing the USSR and the greatest achievement of an evil empire that Google will remember its own motto: Dont be evil.