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Cosmonaut Day: Remembering the Space Race and Soviet-American Handshake

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April 13, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

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Yesterday, April 12th, humanity celebrated International Cosmonautics Day. On this day in 1961, the first manned space flight was accomplished. The Russian military pilot Yury Gagarin became the first man in space. Since then, a large number of people have been in space, but Gagarin has forever remained the first. Gagarin’s charm has conquered all the nations of the earth and he has become, without exaggeration, the most popular person in the world. It is a pity that since then, countries and peoples have had increasing difficulty in finding common ground. 

As someone who is interested in the history of space exploration, I could point out many interesting details and aspects of the topic, such as the fact staring us in the face, namely, that the space race was started simultaneously by two superpowers, the USSR and USA. All the advantages were on the side of the Americans, as their country was initially more scientifically and industrially advanced and was not destroyed during the Second World War. 

The US joined the war on the European continent in 1943 (in Italy), but only really engaged in serious battles with the Third Reich in June 1944 after the Anglo-American landing in Normandy. This “second front” was opened while the Soviet army was already approaching the borders of the Third Reich and could have finished the war alone. 

The US emerged from the war as the most powerful superpower, overtaking the status of the British Empire whose colonies the Americans bought for military assistance. On the contrary, most of the USSR’s European territory had been destroyed by the war. More than 27 million Soviet citizens were killed and its industry had been destroyed or evacuated to the East. 

The Americans’ competitive advantages in the space race only increased due to the fact that they managed to take practically the entire German rocket science team, including the prominent SS figure Wernher von Braun, along with ready-made equipment models and technical documentation. The Russians only got what the Americans didn’t manage to take. 

Nevertheless, with the help of German specialists who, as a rule, were second or third rank in von Braun’s team, the USSR succeeded in establishing rocket production. If the Americans relied on von Braun, who became the creator of American missiles and the American space program, then the Russians largely relied on their own experts. The Germans’ help was quite valuable, but only on the first, the initial stage of the project. 

As a result, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite and the first ships with living beings on board. And finally, on April 12th, 1961, Yury Gagarin accomplished the first manned space flight.

The Soviet Russian space team was always one or even two steps ahead of the Americans. Soviet cosmonauts were the first to compete two spacecraft docking. The legendary Soviet cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov became the first human to walk in space. 

In any case, one should not understate and especially not belittle the achievements of American astronauts and space science. The memoirs and statements of Soviet specialists and the leader of the Soviet space program, Sergey Korolev (who was nearly killed in a Stalinist Gulag), are full of genuine respect for their American competitors and, at the same time, comrades in space exploration. In turn, American astronauts held great respect for their Russian colleagues. US President John Kennedy had the courage to admit that America was behind the Russians, and announced a national program to defeat the Russians in the space race. The crown of this program was not only competition, but also cooperation, as with the legendary docking of the Soviet Soyuz and American Apollo in  1975, which was aptly called a “handshake in space.”

The planet is very much in need of repeating such a handshake. But this would require a new boss in the White House somewhat similar to John Kennedy, who admired his Soviet opponent, Nikita Khrushchev.

But alas, yesterday’s holiday was overshadowed by news from Ukraine. The once Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic contributed enormously to the development of a peaceful space program. Dnepropetrovsk was one of the USSR’s space centers which boasted manufacturing might (the legendary Yuzhmash) and unique scientific staff. But yesterday Ukrainian authorities announced that they are changing International Cosmonautics Day. Ukraine will henceforth mark this day in November. The reason? On November 19th, 1997, an American shuttle’s space flight began with the first cosmonaut from independent Ukraine, Leonid Kadenyuk, on board. The servility of independent Ukraine in this step is so much that it is open subservience to the Americans who, moreover, are unlikely to even notice (much less appreciate) this servile act.

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But let us not think about these pygmies from Ukraine. Let us remember and honor the memory of the space titans who on April 12th, 1961  opened a new, space era in the history of mankind. Eternal memory to all the departed Soviet, American, and other cosmonauts and astronauts, figures of science and industry! Good health and good luck to the veterans of space exploration and, of course, for new flights and achievements by modern cosmonauts and astronauts! 

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