Whatever your understanding of the origins of man, few can argue that for time immemorial mankind has gazed up at the stars in the sky above with awe and wonder. We have looked at the vastness above us and wondered; wondered what these slow-dancing lights could be; wondered what it would be like to reach out and touch them.
At first these lights were gods or spirits, or pinpricks in the firmament revealing the light of another realm. Then, as observation and curiosity led to increased understanding, they became celestial spheres engaged in an intricate dance through a vastness of nothingness that few minds could begin to comprehend. Mankind became aware of his smallness and insignificance, in the face of a distant and hostile sky. Yet, rather than being disheartened and lowering his gaze, his sense of curiosity and wonder only increased. And man desired even more to reach out and touch the stars.
The greater our understanding of the material nature of reality, the harder that dream became to realise. The enormity of the challenge of rising out of the gravity well; the hostile nature of the environment (or lack of it) beyond the comforting embrace of our atmosphere; the vastness of the distances between even the smallest and closest of celestial bodies. And yet try we did.
For a great part of the last century, amid the warmongering and petty argument, the death of the last empires and the casual, callous subjugation of the environment, some of the best and the brightest of men (and women) worked to reach up and touch the stars. Weapons of war were bent and twisted to a new end as deadly explosive force was harnessed (often spectacularly unsuccessfully) in an attempt to lift a few mad, brave fools off this mortal coil and into the heavens.
Fifty years ago today, the first man to ever leave this earth was lifted into orbit on the top of a Russian Vostok rocket; little more than a glorified firecracker. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, tied securely in a tiny capsule, orbited the earth once, experiencing weightlessness and looking down on the sphere of the earth below. As no one, except perhaps the gods, had ever done before.
The American Alan Shepard followed less than a month later, and since then more than 500 men and women have been lifted into orbit and sometimes beyond. Not one of them has touched the stars, but they have all been lifted into the firmament and achieved the nearest possible reality of a dream of man that is so old it is primal.
I don’t think I could describe to you quite how proud I am of this Russian, of his countrymen who strived to send him into the heavens, and of their compatriots in the United States. There are many ends of the race of man that trouble my heart and fill me with shame. This is not one of them. I cannot tell you enough that I think this aim, to dream, to question, to reach beyond our bounds to fight against the shackles of our mortal nature is of vital importance. Reaching to the stars – dreaming that we can and giving our all to achieve that dream – is what makes us human.
Yuri Gagarin is a cypher, who represents the best of what it is to be human. To be made only ‘a little lower than the angels’. He represents the questing drive that has taken us from African campfires to the very ends of this earth, and is beginning to see us look beyond. This is definitely an anniversary to celebrate.
Update: Kester Brewin has some thoughts on this anniversary which I think are wonderfully complimentary. He goes further, saying that this day marks the birthday of ‘Planet Earth’ as a cultural concept. Have a read if you liked this and want more!