On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, Flinders University space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman (pictured) reflects on the significance of that feat – with an Australian twist.
“Australians were fascinated by the idea of the first man in outer space, if media coverage around the 12 April 1961 mission is any indication, and they remain so,” Dr Gorman said.
Her survey of newspaper accounts reveals the official reception of Gagarin’s achievement was tempered by Cold War hostilities.
“Leaders all over the world were congratulating the USSR but Prime Minister Menzies wouldn’t. He made no public statement,” she said.
“Journalists turned to scientists for comment, particularly at Woomera which had been the first tracking station to acquire Sputnik 1 in orbit.
“They didn’t manage to track Gagarin’s flight, however, which led some to speculate whether it really happened.”
Dr Gorman said a comment by prominent Australian physicist and nuclear scientist Professor Harry Messel reflects the mood in some circles.
“There was an element of doubt in his comment: ‘If what the Russians claim is true, then it is a triumph over the free world…Scientifically, I’m happy; but from a Cold War perspective, I’m sad’.”
Menzies’ silence may have led to Moscow’s lack of response when an invitation was issued for Yuri Gagarin to visit the 1961 Sydney Trade Fair, which featured life-size models of several Soviet spacecraft. Gagarin bypassed Australia in his world tour that year.
Australian journalist and Communist sympathiser, Wilfred Burchett weighs into this story, too.
“Burchett, whose passport was lost or stolen, moved his family to Moscow in 1956. He and Anthony Purdy were the only Western journalists allowed to have a face-to-face interview with Gagarin.
“They subsequently wrote a book together, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin: First Man in Space.”
Dr Gorman stumbled across a photograph of Wilfred Burchett’s father, George, presenting Gagarin with a boomerang in Moscow.
The caption reads:
“Mr George Burchett presenting Yuri Gagarin with a boomerang on behalf of Australian peace workers with the hope that he and his fellow compatriots in their journeying to the stars will, like the boomerang, always return to Earth safely and to a world at peace.”
With human spaceflight programs increasingly under threat and technology able to accomplish many tasks remotely, Dr Gorman said it is easy to underestimate Gagarin’s feat.
“Until Gagarin came down in one piece, we actually didn’t know if it was possible for a human to survive in space,” she said.
“What is commonplace now was a mystery then. It was only five years after the first satellite had been launched; can you imagine trusting your life to such untried technology!
“I think Gagarin demonstrated for the first time that we are all citizens of the cosmos; he was the first person to see the Earth from the outside.”