The Space Race series on BBC2 is shaping up to be quite excellent, in my (not very) humble opinion. So far we’ve gone from Von Braun and his engineers trying to escape to American forces in the crumbling Third Reich to the early 1960s. 1961 to be exact. Tonight’s documentary covered the wonderfully tense desperation between the USSR and NASA to put the first human into space. Despite being quite familiar with the history I found myself utterly gripped by this episode; how close NASA was, the dreadful explosion in the USSR. The series has the hallmark quality documentary level of detail you would expect from the Beeb mixed with re-creations.
Only 16 years before the most advanced rockets were the V2s being unleashed by the Nazis, raining destruction down on Britain – the dawn of the ballistic missile, which would cast a long and terrifying shadow across the succeeding decades. And yet 16 years later here was Yuri Gagarin climbing into a primitve rocket, knowing full well just how dangerous it was. That acceptance of danger was something astronauts and cosmonauts had in common; the willingness to push themselves into the unknown.
The Space Race was driven very much by Cold War considerations relating to those ballistic missiles and national prestige, but that doens’t mean for one moment we shouldn’t regard some of those achievements with reverence. Picture Gagarin in a violenty shaking tiny capsule, hurled into orbit; the rocket could explode, the capsule may not make it back – hell, they weren’t even sure a human being could actually survive spaceflight even if the machinery worked perfectly. And yet there was no shortage of pilots willing to fly.
So there is Gagarin, being shaken around and experiencing enormous G-force and suddenly it goes quiet and he is floating in orbit around our little world. The first man in the history to look down on the clouds scurrying across the face of the globe from above; the first to travel round the entire world in less than a couple of hours. Short centuries before the first circumnavigations of the globe were celebrated and took months or even years. Now Gagarin flashed round the Earth in just over 100 minutes.
We tend to forget just how big an adventure space exploration is today – we make jokes about Shuttle flights being delayed and are only reminded how dangerous an endeavour it is when tragedy strikes. We complain about costs (which may be big but are a fraction of what we waste on weapons) and lose sight of the sheer wonder of it all. And yet back then it was far more dangerous and raw and yet they did it. But Gagarin was the first to see our world from space and it was wondrful.
Alexei Leonov (the first man to perform a spacewalk and honoured by Arthur C Clarke by having the ship in 2010 named for him) recalled those days and his friendship with Yuri in his portion of Two Sides of the Moon which details the early space programme from both sides (reviewed here – I treasure the copy I have signed by Alexei’s co-author, Apollo astronuat David Scott (how blown away was I to talk to a man who had walked on the Moon?!?!)). Yuri Gagarin was one of my heroes when I was a boy and this series reminded me of the mixture of fascination and excitement space exploration sparked in me back then; no wonder I ended up selling SF! Perhaps Ken MacLeod’s books are partly a substitute for space travel for me. I don’t have a poster of him anymore, but Yuri is still one of my heroes; I think he always will be. He really did go where no man had gone before and he did it boldly.