On this day fifty years ago Yuri Gargarin slipped these surly bonds…
Fifty years ago…
It’s like black and white movies of the Battle of the Somme because it is history now. It is something that happened and mattered but not something that is still happening.
Fifty years ago.
Around that time my teenaged Dad was watching a band he rather liked called The Silver Beatles at a dingy gaff called “The Cavern Club” in Liverpool playing covers of American songs. And yes, the cloakroom attendant was a Miss Priscilla White.
We still had the death penalty, homosexuality was illegal, we still had shillings and such. Kilograms were just something mysterious and filthy the French did. Flying to America was a big deal and not something almost everyone can now afford. Wearing a black polo-neck jumper and saying, “That’s cool daddio” after reciting terrible beatnik poetry was, well, cool and could get you laid rather than beaten which is what should have been the case.
My wife once tried to explain to her teenage cousin Pong. He didn’t get it. It was a world away from his Sony PSP. A friend of mine has just had a kid (couple of months ago). How, ten years from now, could I explain Halo to him? Luke will grow up in world where all TVs are panels and have a thousand channels. I recall them with tubes and the start of C4 being a big deal. I also recall as a young kid watching in black & white which is a concept which will truly scare the kiddies. They just won’t believe it! Will they though believe that when my parents were half the age I am men went into space? Will they believe and see where it all went wrong? Will they see that technology is about more than how slim your phone is?
I don’t have any children (a cat is more than enough) but I’m 37 so I could easily have teenage kids of my own which means that Yuri’s excursion easily places that within the realm of teenagers of that time who are grandparents now.
So what happened? Where did it all go wrong (and why is there a Vauxhall Corsa in the drive and not a jet-pack in the cupboard?). Well, obviously there was the absurd dick-swinging contest that was the Cold War that accelerated in the wrong way such non-market driven space-silliness. Well, I say “silliness” but the glory of it is impossible to dispute.
But there is another way of looking at it…
Historians have worked out that from having a vague idea to first flight the Wright brothers spent $1000. I have seen a reconstruction of the Flyer in the Smithsonian in DC (they also have the watch with which the first controlled powered flight was timed). I have seen the command module of Apollo 11 there too. 66 years separates Kill Devil Hills from the Sea of Tranquillity. 50 years separates me from Gagarin and then what? My Tal-Mizar enables me to view the transits of the ISS but that is no further from me than London is. 50 or 66 - the difference is the age of a teenager who probably likes music their parents regard as cacophonous. As ever.
We have not gone any further than Orv, Will or Yuri. But there is hope. At roughly the same time the bicycle engineers from Ohio invented flight as we know it there was also Samuel Langley. He was director of the Smithsonian. And this is what he spent $50,000 of US government money on:
It was launched from a boat via a catapult that alone cost $10,000 (the Wrights launched from a rail made from wood from a local dealer that cost the eye-watering sum of $4! The Wright aircraft was spotted on the ground by the local life guards (it was December - who’s swimming?) and (amongst others) a “curious teenager” who happened by. Now if you think from the photo Samuel Langley’s ‘plane took an early bath you’d be right (not Wright). The “pilot” of the “aerodrome” had to be fished out of the Potomac.
Langley of course had the press out. That epic (but very expensive) non-event was photographed (and rightly mocked by the press). For the Wrights…
…this was the real thing…
The first powered and controlled flight ever. Can you imagine the tale the “curious teenager” had to tell? There are many images that could be seen as defining the twentieth century but for me that is the one. We took off and where will it end? Nietzsche had earlier opined something like, “The railway, the electric telegraph are postulates for which the 1000 year conclusion has not been written”. Quite. Neither has flight, neither has space and does not that scare them? Oh, it’s safe enough when it is in the context of super-power confrontation which can be fitted into the political box but when it is about more…
Which to me it is. It is about everything.
Anyway, salute Gagarin! For that was magnificent.
Fifty years… wow!
Back in 1995 my tutor at Nottingham asked what I want to do after graduation. I wanted (and did get) a fully funded (yes, six places in the country, but then I was good) MSc in Astrophysics from London (QMC). Why? I was offerred a number of postgrad berths including one - at Nottingham - in - I’m not joshing - chocolate*. He used the phrase (he was into wave-guides) that astrophysics was the “engine room”. Oh, hell it is! It is the fire and the fire we must touch. Or we are nothing.
Yuri we salute you (even if we’ve been a bit tardy since)! And when (not if) I get my holiday home by the methane seas of Titan it’s gonna be umbrella drinks all round!
And there shall be attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
Because we are the dust of supernovae and we just need to go home.
*That included 3 grand a year in “consumable lab supplies” which I assume would have meant I was well set up for shagging any fat bird I might meet - in the East Midlands anyway - so that’s a lot. But no!