When science fiction heroes came to life

John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, third and fourth from left, bottom row, are the only surviving Mercury astronauts.
John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, third and fourth from left, bottom row, are the only surviving Mercury astronauts.

It came as a shock to American intelligence officials, to the Kennedy administration — and to the original seven Project Mercury astronauts. Fifty years ago Tuesday, the Soviet Union, which had trouble producing quality refrigerators or television sets for its own people, sent a man into space and returned him safely to Earth.

Yuri Gagarin did more than brush his shoulder against outer space, which is essentially what America's first space veteran, Alan Shepard, did a month later in a 15-minute flight that took him 115 miles high. Gagarin piloted his Vostok spacecraft beyond the bounds of the atmosphere, achieved Earth orbit and spent 108 minutes in space.

"We didn't think they were as far along as they were, and we thought that whoever rode that first Redstone would be the first person in space," John Glenn, who with Scott Carpenter is one of only two of America's original astronauts still alive, said recently. "They had better boosters but we thought we were ahead. When they announced Gagarin had gone around the Earth, it was a shock."

The shock has worn off. Since then, more than 500 people have flown in space, men have stepped on the moon, and serious people speak of a mission to Mars within our lifetimes. But Gagarin's feat remains an important marker — and this week's anniversary means that humans have been in space for a half century.

Space travel is hardly routine even now. Two space-shuttle tragedies have underlined the danger of missions that seldom attract attention today. But it is difficult to remember the effect that the dawn of the Space Age had in 1961, in part because it is hard in a world without a bitter ideological superpower struggle to imagine the Cold War tensions that produced the space race.

In that atmosphere, the astronauts were both spacemen and symbols — emblems of American virtues and values, test pilots whose outlook married adventure, daring, and technology. They were heroes of a sort that does not exist today.

"They were revered and extolled," novelist Tom Wolfe wrote, "songs and poems were written about them, every reasonable comfort and honor was given them, and women and children and even grown men were moved to tears in their presence."

They were supposed to be just like us, even as they were different from us. Two Air Force doctors in a presentation to the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in 1959 said that these volunteers for space flight had an unusually high tolerance of stress and "uncomplaining acceptance" of discomfort.

These men were given classroom, aircraft, weightlessness, and survival training — plus skin-diving instruction. They were outfitted in uniforms with an aluminized nylon covering that gave them a silver color and protection from the extreme heat of re-entry.

A parallel effort was under way in the Soviet Union. As early as 1951, the Soviets said that they were prepared to go into space. In 1953, their specialists declared that Soviet science "had reached such a stage that the launching of a stratoplane to the moon" was a reasonable achievement.

The space race was constructed on the architecture of the Cold War. Its assets were missiles, it pilots were military aviators, and its computers had military origins or uses.

The Soviet lead in space didn't hold. America's Gemini and Apollo missions leapt ahead of the Soviets and, despite the death of three astronauts on a Cape Kennedy launch pad in 1967, reached lunar orbit and, soon afterward, the lunar surface. The space race produced upswells in pride and patriotism.

Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut, spent nearly two and a quarter years in space. Another Russian, Anatoly Solovykev, spent nearly three and a half days in space walks over the course of 16 tries. Those achievements, inconceivable when the Space Age began, have produced a generation that is blase about the blast of a rocket into space.

Though great challenges — poverty, disease, environmental degradation — press on humankind, the fading of the space dream nonetheless worries national leaders, educators, philosophers, theologians — and astronauts.

"Unless people keep striving for things that excite them — that have a bit of a utopian vision to them — they will stagnate," said Jay Apt, a Carnegie Mellon University physicist who has been on four space shuttle missions. "An endless source of that utopian energy can be found around our heads as we take the annual journey around the sun. There is no better way of stretching your imagination than stretching and reaching out to the night sky."

One person who understands that is Franklin Chang-Diaz, one of only two men to have made seven trips into space. He was an 11-year-old in Costa Rica when the Space Age began with the Gagarin mission. Later he would have pictures of the Mercury astronauts on the walls of his room.

"I had been dreaming about someday becoming an astronaut," he said recently from Costa Rica, where he operates a company that makes a plasma rocket that might one day cut a mission to Mars from six months to a month.
"But of course in those days, there were no astronauts, only heroes from science fiction. It was a time I wish we could recover."

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com