April 12, 2011
On April 12, 1961 Yuri Gagarin went into space and circled Earth. May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard did the first of those feats. February 20, 1962, almost a year later, John Glenn accomplished both of those feats.
January 27, 1986, I learned about Americans John Glenn and Alan Shepard but someone, somehow neglected to mention Russian Yuri Gagarin. This lesson took place the day before my class and I were shuttled into the “learning center,” as our school library was then called, and were all sat down to watch the space shuttle Challenger go 73 seconds into the air before doing what every kid in that room immediately understood to be blowing up. The teachers were the ones who had a hard time acknowledging that fact.
The tragedy took place nearly 25 years after Gagarin became the first man to go into space, 29 after Lajka became the first dog sent into space on Sputnik 2 and also 29 years before Sputnik 1 became the first satellite in space. The Challenger blew up 23 years before cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space (16 June 1963). These were all Soviet accomplishments.
Americans are the Only Humans that Count
Somehow, during my studies, the American-ness of the space race was emphasized, but the accomplishment of a human going into space was missed. This tells me that even as late as 1986, the Cold War battle of ideologies was intentionally being fought in the minds of American children. Battles are all well and good, but it does raise the question of whether the purpose of education is to simply instill knowledge and an inquisitive desire to find truth, or is the purpose of education to devalue truth and to instill a view of the world and a lens for which a child evaluate which kinds of truths are friendly and therefore good and which kinds of truth arethreatening and therefore bad.
The 1950s in America, with its air raid drills at school and its wholesome depictions of home, seem, from my perspective, to be a time where home was wholesome, but school terrifying. Later in the decade, I imagine, as children started to increasingly sit in front of the television, home too became a potentially terrifying place, even for kids with great parents. That’s my understanding of the times, an understanding which is poorly informed.
I feel qualified to state, though, that either knowingly or unknowingly, governments on both sides of the Cold War instilled a sense of terror in the public, a sense of terror that kids, with their especially pronounced need for a sense of security, were most susceptible to.
A Name Everyone Should Know
I learned about John Glenn, but his accomplishment is not really that meaningful of an accomplishment – Second Place. The second pioneer. Edmund Hillary we know. Then there was some other guy. Ferdinand Magellan. Then some other guy. Marie Currie. Then some guy. Eli Whitney. Then some other guy. Christopher Columbus. Then some other guy. Alexander Graham Bell. Then some other guy. Thomas Edison. Then some other guy.
In school, when we talked about space exploration, I learned about the other guy. Not until I was 22 years old and teaching in Slovakia did I learn about the first guy. Yuri Gagarin, universally known in this part of the world and beyond. He and his fantastic smile. He was good for PR and the women loved him, despite the fact that he was but 5 feet 2 inches tall (making his fit in his spherical orbiter easier). This was the pioneer of all pioneers – the first man to cross the line between our planet and the area beyond. Yet I didn’t learn about him.
Even Last Place is More Interesting than Second Place
In fact, the most recent person to do something feels like a more important distinction than the second. The most recent guy on the moon, incidentally was Eugene Cernan, a Slovak-American Astronaut. He was there in 1972. Eugene Cernan is not to be confused for Anton Cermak, the Czech-born mayor of Chicago who was assassinated in 1933 while with president-elect FDR in Florida. Wouldn’t the most recent be more important to have learned about that the second place guy, that other guy?
Instead of learning about Yuri Gagarin, I learned about some other guy. Because, evidently, my teachers or maybe some committee that developed text books, felt they had good reason to include my mind as part of the battle field in the Cold War.
The Cold War Battlefield
A few years back, I walked into the school I was teaching at in Slovakia and the Skolnik was digging through a closet. “Skolnik” simply translates to “janitor” in English, but the greater respect afforded to people involved with education does not translate. Teachers seemed to be better regarded in Slovakia than in the U.S. Correspondingly, school janitors too get a higher level of respect. They are even called Pan Skolnik or “Mr. Janitor.” Well, I stepped into the storage closet behind Pan Skolnik, because what I saw interested me. Hanging on the walls of this room that I had never seen unlocked were hundreds of gas masks. “One for every student,” he told me.
Shortly thereafter, I happened to see a Slovak film from the 1980’s that was meant to portray the day of a student. In it a civil defense drill was conducted. This seems to be the equivalent of having children crawl under desks in the U.S., because it brought them into the Cold War and made real the fear of annihilation.
In these drills, students would put on their gas masks and act out various scenarios of an attack from NATO. Having not lived through the times and having the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy for me to criticize such drills. Of course some amount of preparation is valuable. I wonder if governments on both sides were guilty of instilling terror with their preparations. At some point, the terror instilled in preparation became greater than any terror that the enemy had created.
It’s fair to add that it is believed by some in Slovakia that Yuri Gagarin did not come first. Vladimir Ilyushin did. This was also a name I was never taught.
The story goes that the first guy up in space crashed back to the earth and was badly injured. The Soviets, with their obsessive control of information, were not going to publicize that the first man in space returned such a mess, so they gave it another try and when the 27 year old Gagarin was successful at returning in one piece, they plastered his face everywhere. For the sake of keeping on point, I will ignore this suspicion that Gagarin was not the first one in space.
The USSR Deserves some Credit
Sputnik, Laika, and Gagarin are the three great accomplishments of the Soviet space program in the 1950s and are “household accomplishments” in Slovakia, recognized by nearly everyone. At the same time, Neil Armstrong is also a recognized name. Aside from Sputnik, it seems like Soviet space milestones were disregarded in my education.
If my education is indicative of the education of other Americans my age, my experience makes it seem that America was capable of being just as shady with the truth as the Soviet Union was capable of being.
In my next article, which you’ll see in the next few days, I’ve written about how Slovakia seems to be stuck in the 1950s. I hope those who lived in the 1950s or have some expert knowledge of times past would be so kind as to enlighten me about where I went wrong or where I went right in the comparison when I post that piece. But for now…
I’m curious to hear if every other person in America knew of Yuri Gagarin or if it was just my schools that depicted outer space as the sole domain of the American government? Did people in other, non-communist, parts of the world know Gagarin? And in the “East,” in Slovakia and beyond, did the name John Glenn mean anything to anyone? Or Alan Shepard?More importantly, were names like Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong known?
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gagarin going into space, followed by Shepard a month later. I wonder if the unofficial propaganda wars will continue. Will Shepard be more praised and celebrated in the U.S. on May 5 than Gagarin was on April 12?