Guest Post: Yuri's Night - and Iowa's role in the Space Race

Guest Post: Yuri's Night - and Iowa's role in the Space Race

By: Phil Hahn, SCI Member

I feel very honored to have my article on Yuri's Night posted by the Science Center of Iowa. For some time, I've wanted to write something about the great Space Race and Iowa's fascinating role during those exciting times. It was during that era that science and technology lifted our vision of exploration beyond the earth and achieved the first advances into space, beyond our biosphere.

That's why I have become a strong supporter of the Science Center of Iowa. In this awesome facility, everyone can learn about our fantastic world and the universe around us, in a relaxed and stimulating atmosphere. Especially in the IMAX theater, one gets the experience of being "right there," in virtually any natural environment we could choose, including alien worlds yet to be explored.

Science is becoming awesome and ever more important to our daily lives. Knowing this makes me all the more appreciative of the Science Center of Iowa.

Republished from The Sidereal Times, May 2014.

Thinking of Yuri's Night - the celebration of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's pioneering flight into space - reminds me of an exercise in cosmic perspective: One is to lie on the grass and stare up into the clear summer sky at night. Then, the individual doing this exercise is to imagine that he or she is falling downward through an endless universe, past stars and galaxies, never stopping. This experiment is designed to give the participant some intuition of the vastness of space, maybe even (best case scenario) a slight sense of terror.

Yuri Gagarin got his own glimpse of that cosmic perspective when he became the first human being to enter space and orbit the earth on April 12, 1961, aboard Vostok 1, making him "the first person ever to see the Sun rise twice in two hours."

During this trip of only 108 minutes, Yuri was awed by his view of the earth below and the sun against the blackness of space. Although the story released to the public and to the rest of the world contained little hint that anything unexpected had happened during Yuri’s return to earth, the truth was something else: "Just before reentry, the ball's main linkages with the rear equipment module separated correctly, but the umbilical cable, with its dense bundle of electrical wires that transferred power and data to the ball, did not come away cleanly. For several minutes, the ball and rear module remained tied together, like pair of boots with their laces inadvertently knotted. The whole ensemble tumbled end over end in its headlong rush to earth." ("Starman" by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony)

But Yuri did land - intact - and preserved in the record is a charming story of the first people he met after he left his space capsule near a village. The villagers looked astonished and somewhat fearful, and one of them asked Yuri if it was possible that he had come from outer space. He said that, in fact he had, and to calm their fears, referred to himself as a friend, a citizen of their country. This first "space alien" told them that he needed a telephone to "call Moscow."

The race to space, a battle of science and politics

Of course, there's so much more to this incredible first journey into space. Its history, and the history of this era, is hard for us now to grasp, appreciate or even remember.

John Glenn, the American astronaut who followed Yuri into space on February 20, 1962, noted, "There was this fear that perhaps communism was the wave of the future. The astronauts, all of us, really believed we were locked in a battle of democracy versus communism, where the winner would dominate the world."

  • After Russia stunned the world with Sputnik 1, Moscow was soon able to announce another achievement, sending the first living being, a dog named Laika ("Barker"), into orbit aboard Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957.
  • The United States then launched its own first satellite, Explorer 1, into space (a much smaller satellite than either Sputnik1 or Sputnik 2) on January 31, 1958.
  • In 1959, Russia attempted a moon mission three times: Luna I missed its target and went into orbit around the sun, Luna II landed on the moon and, finally, Luna III took a photograph, for the first time ever, of the backside of the moon.

By the end of the 1950's, though, one big event remained almost unimaginably important because it had not yet happened -- no human being had ever been sent into space. So the tension was great, and it was "full steam ahead!"

If there ever was any humor during this somber era, it had to have been when Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev took special note of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1. Weighing only 30.8 pounds, it was definitely a lighter load than either Sputnik I or Sputnik II, which weighed 184.3 pounds and 1,121 pounds, respectively. So Khrushchev dubbed the American satellite a “grapefruit.” However, this "grapefruit," although smaller than its Russian counterparts, had one powerful bonus: It carried lightweight instrumentation that discovered radiation belts around the earth – and the instrument was developed by none other than James Van Allen at theUniversity of Iowa (hence,the name: Van Allen Belts).

Khrushchev goes "corn crazy" in Iowa

Of course, there were other realities in the world during the great Space Race. The U.S. and the USSR, the two dominant powers on the globe, seemed to be at a standoff, each wondering about and studying the other. Maybe that's why they decided to "take a break" in September of 1959, when a Soviet delegation came to the United States for a visit.

The Russian delegation toured Iowa, including a one-day visit to the farm of Roswell Garst, located just outside Coon Rapids. (From what I've heard, security was extremely tight, military posts located at points every mile along the way.)

Garst had invited his friend Khrushchev to see American agriculture firsthand. Garst was the founder of a successful seed corn company, had corresponded with the heads of state in Eastern Europe, and had visited Russia. He was selling the Soviets on American agricultural practices and technology. And it worked. During the visit, when the delegation was out walking the fields, Khrushchev lofted a large ear of corn and uttered his famous line (in Russian), "How do you do this?"

It seemed for a while that the space race had been put on the shelf, replaced by another race: agriculture.

Khrushchev initiated an ambitious program to raise corn in Russia. In fact, many Russians referred to Khrushchev as having gone “corn crazy.” After all, raising food is a necessity to any society... traveling into space is not.

Yuri's infamous flight

However, the further exploration of outer space continued to exert its magic influence on the thoughts and dreams of Earth's inhabitants until, finally, another first: On April 12, 1961, a young cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin waited impatiently in a space module aboard a powerful Vostok 1 rocket somewhere in a secluded and secret part of Russia.

Yuri's tension must have been excruciating, fueled by the expectation that he could, if he survived this unknown ordeal, be the first human being rocketed into space, into orbit around the earth. One can only wonder what his thoughts were. Maybe they included flashbacks to his childhood or to the incredibly rigorous training he underwent for cosmonaut. Or maybe he thought about Laika, the little dog who became the first living being from Earth sent into space, who died in orbit when her space module overheated. Whatever he experienced during those final moments on the launching pad, his patience finally broke. He cried out, "Let's go!"

Whatever his first moments of this experience were, there must have been an eerie feeling of familiarity. Yuri had already experienced the crushing load of G's during many training sessions as Russian scientists pushed him to the limits.

This time, though, it was for real, and he was being lifted up into orbit to obtain that awesome view with its incredibly unique perspective: the earth below, the sun rising twice in two hours.

Category: NASA