I nearly missed an important anniversary this weekend. No, mine's in December. Rather, this weekend has been the 50th anniversary of the first man to enter space and return. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched into space in 1961, causing a panic in the United States and a rush to the moon for us.
I was reading the AP article about the original mission and noticed this exchange which I thought worthwhile:
On the eve of the flight, Gagarin and his backup, German Titov, went to bed early and were awakened at 5:30 a.m. Gagarin was joking, his pulse was an exemplary 64 beats a minute and it remained the same after he took his seat in the Vostok.
Before boarding, Gagarin saw Korolyov looking haggard after a sleepless night. "Don't you worry, Sergei Pavlovich, he told the chief designer, "everything will be just fine."
"It was he who was comforting me!" Korolyov would marvel later. He thought of Gagarin as a son, and Gagarin carried Korolyov's picture in his wallet.
Here Gagarin is taking all the risks: there are doubts about what weightlessness will do to his body; doubts about the landing options; doubts about re-entry; doubts about surviving the vacuum of space. All of those would only matter if the launch vehicle worked!
Yet, here is a man, calm, facing those doubts, and looking at another man giving him encouragement. The danger was faced by Gagarin. Had Korolyov made any mistakes in the design, would it have cost him his life? (KGB conspiracy theories aside, ok?) No—the life risk was Gagarin's. It was Gagarin who wrote his wife a farewell letter, Gagarin who had to consider his daughters growing up fatherless in the Motherland.
He comes to the launch pad and speaks comfort. He may never come back and he knows it. Except that he's made his peace with it, well enough to pass good words to another.
What about us? We have our struggles, our scared moments. Where do we stand?
Are we so intimidated by the potential for failure that we don't even go the launchpad? Do we sit quietly, thankful that there are others to take the risks? Or are we willing to step forward and act?
And when we act, can we do so with such commitment to going forward that we inspire the ones that watch? While the full study would take more time than I have, do you doubt that Korolyov worked better from the success of Gagarin?
A final thought---I can tell you the first satellite the Russians launched: Sputnik. The Americans launched Explorer. The Americans launched Alan Shephard in Freedom 7, and orbited John Glenn in Friendship 7. I would have to look up the name of Gagarin's spacecraft. I just don't know. The space lore I've loved for many years just remembers his name: Yuri Gagarin.
Our actions define us, and can define the world we live in. Our actions definitely leave a long shadow across the following generations. What are you leaving?