Today is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space. To celebrate, the BBC has put online an essay that asks ‘What if the Soviet Union had won the Space Race’? It's a nice little piece that celebrates the genius of the USA – although perhaps not in the way the author intended.
By any reasonable assessment, the Russians won the space race. They sent the first satellite into orbit. They sent the first living creature into space, and then the first man human being. They performed the first spacewalk. They sent the first satellites to the moon, and were the first to map its dark side. They sent the first satellite that landed on the moon, and the first that brought back samples of moon rocks. For any practical, useful milestone you can imagine, the Russians beat the Americans in the exploration of our immediate space, hands down.
America suffered what is now called its ‘Sputnik moment’. All Sputnik was was a transmitter in a small metal globe. It did nothing but broadcast a constant ‘bip-bip-bip’ as it travelled across the sky. A transmitter going ‘bip-bip-bip’ should not concern anyone, least of all a mighty superpower. But the problem was not on the practical level, it was in the realm of ideas. A communist nation had put Sputnik into space and communism was understood to be an inferior ideology, one which certainly couldn’t achieve anything that capitalism was unable to do.
But if there is a genius to America, then it is in this realm of belief and ideas. The race had been lost? Then reimagine it, redefine it, create an even bigger race - one which truly understands what inspires people. Then sell this this new goal to the whole world, and sell it so completely that 50 years later the BBC would be asking ‘What if the Russians had won the Space Race?'
The Americans understood that the one thing that could capture people’s imagination more that Yuri Gagarin’s amazing heroism would be men actually standing on the moon and hitting golf balls about. The sight of men driving pointlessly around the moon in a little moon car would appeal on such a profound human level that all the earlier achievements – the useful, amazing, real achievements – would be forgotten. And so, despite the suicidal danger, unbelievable costs and lack of any practical reason for what they were doing, they put men on the moon, hit golf balls about, drove around in a little moon car, and acted for all the world like that been the goal all along. And we've accepted it, haven't we? We never question this definition of victory in the Space Race. That fact, I think, is the real genius of the American mind.
There is an irony here; America went to the moon to prove the superiority of the American system, one based on rugged individualism rather than a powerful state. To do so however took a massively funded governmental operation, while the success of the Russian operation was almost solely due to the individual genius of one man, Sergey Korolyov. It was Korolyov’s death in 1966 which ended the era of Russian space achievement, not the ‘defeat’ in the ‘Space Race’ in 1969.
This is not to undermine the brilliance of the Apollo programme, of course. It is still mankind’s greatest achievement – even if it was an insane, ludicrous folly. It brought back the ‘Earthrise’ and ‘Blue Marble’ photographs that had such a profound impact on how we understand ourselves. But Yuri Gagarin that won the space race, and today is the day for remembering that.