Sitting here in 2011, however, I can’t but be disappointed about how things have panned out. Fifty years after Yuri Alexeivich Gagarin went up for 108 minutes in space inside a Nano front seat space attached to the end of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), I would have expected space travel to be as regular as a Cox & Kings package tour to the Annapurna base camp.
But no. Not only do we still not have anti-gravity cars and sexually attractive androids, but ‘normal’ people still can’t travel to space. Frankly, going by what everyone in the 1970s-80s thought 2011 would be like, I want my money back. So what happened? To rephrase that old Oscar Wilde line: We are all in the gutter, and no one can see the stars.
The romance of space travel never survived the end of the Cold War and nothing has replaced the Soyuz vs Apollo, cosmonaut vs astronaut, Baikonur vs Houston, Gagarin vs Armstrong days — no, not even the Microsoft vs Apple wars. I place some hope in the Chinese sending up manned missions and building lunar colonies, thereby making the Americans wake up from their navel-gazing exercises. Even an Islamic space mission can do the trick. (Come on Iran!)
I’m, of course, being idiotically optimistic. But for at least 25 years after 1961, the future looked tantalisingly good. With Gagarin’s first space flight came the moment when science fiction merged with science fact in all its nerdy details and wide-eyed glory as a carefully selected farm boy-turned-fighter pilot went outside the world and came back in one piece.
No one has put it better than Nikita Krushchev’s aide Fyodor Burlatsky: “I was in tears, and many people in the streets were crying from the shock, a shock of happiness... because a man was flying in heaven, in the realm of god...”
Leaving the world has been jettisoned in favour of saving the world. Even though sending cosmonauts and astronauts were part of a national muscle-flexing exercise, the primal thrill of leaving Earth and entering a celestial zone was never out of sight.
Gagarin, the posterboy for the Soviet Union, recalled in his first post-spaceflight press conference what he saw from orbit: “You can see the colourful change from the brightness of the earth to the darkness of space as a thin dividing line, like a layer of film surrounding the earth’s sphere. It’s a subtle blue colour, and the transition is very gradual and lovely. When I emerged from the earth’s shadow there was a bright orange strip along the horizon, which passed into blue, and then into a dense black.”
Which is why I was so disappointed a week before my 13th birthday to hear Rakesh Sharma, India’s first cosmonaut, describe in April 1984 to Indira Gandhi from the Soyuz 2 craft what he saw from space: an India that was “saare jahan se achha”. From the ‘realm of god’, that was one helluva banal observation.
Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony have told the story of Gagarin in its full drama (and twists and turns) in Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. I learnt from this book about the pivotal role played by Sergei Korolev, the unhailed father of the Soviet space programme.
Not only was Korolev responsible for sending the first man into space, but this genius, who was sent to the gulag by Stalin and rescued by Khrushchev to kickstart the Soviet-US space race, was also the inventor of the satellite and the ICBM, and was the backbone of modern rocket and missile technology. And yet, until recently, official records only talked of him as the ‘Chief Designer’.
Space is somewhere and something that we seem to have lost interest in. And yet, I haven’t given up hope. But Richard Branson’s space tourism project, however Thomas Cook-ish it may sound, will still need an authoritative and descriptive write-up to get super-rich subscribers interested.
I can’t imagine Mukesh and Nita Ambani giving up the opportunity to take that special anniversary orbital trip. And how will they be convinced unless they read a nice, long piece about holidaying in space preferably in this paper?
So instead of parroting that incredibly cheesy line apt for our cheesy times ‘Yes, we can!’, I say, ‘Poyekhali!’ — ‘Let’s go!’ — as Gagarin had shouted out from inside Korolev’s Vostok capsule perched on an R-7 rocket as it blasted off from Baikonur in Kazakhstan half a century ago. Going by the utter silence I’m getting as a response, I could be in deep space already.