Saturday, August 02, 2003


Tuesday will be Neil Armstrong's birthday.

I suspect that in some far future, there are two names from this age that will survive in the collective memory of space exploration. Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin.

History is pretty harsh, and general knowledge is even more harsh. Names like Chuck Yeager, Sally Ride, John Glenn and Alan Shepard will fade into obscurity within a hundred years. Ask yourself if you know the names of any of Christopher Columbus' co-captains.

The history of political conflict between the space powers has made Gagarin's feat pretty much unknown in the West. Not that it wasn't announced -- it's just that we continue the cold war tradition of not teaching children about him. I am constantly amazed by purportedly thorough literature that refers only to the U.S. records only, as if no others existed.

It's not that the Soviets were without blame either -- feats achieved by non-communist block countries received minimal coverage there, if any. The Eagle's landing on the Moon's Sea of Tranquillity in July of 1969 was of course announced in the USSR - I am sure that the calculation was made that not announcing this particular American triumph would be more politically expensive in the long run than simply admitting defeat. The loss of the race to the Moon was a severe psychological blow to the cosmonaut corps, coming on top of Gagarin's death, which had just occurred in March of 1968. At the time of his death, Gagarin was the head of their lunar cosmonaut team.

I suspect that Armstrong's death will be an event widely publicized, given the attractiveness of the images he created. It sobers me to realize he will be 83 this week - we will be losing a lot of pioneers in the next decade.