A tale of three spaceflights


Orbits: The treatment of the first men in space by China, the Soviet Union and the United States says a lot about each country.

October 21, 2003

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, orbited the world on a Wednesday - April 12, 1961 - and by Saturday was in Moscow for a parade before millions of people. It was a huge event. Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev called him the new Columbus; President Leonid I. Brezhnev made him a Hero of the Soviet Union.

The world was at his feet - and hardly anyone knew his shoes were untied.

Andrian Nikolaev, who would become the third cosmonaut in space in 1962, accompanied Gagarin to Moscow and recalled that day during an interview in 2001. The plane made several celebratory passes over the city before landing, Nikolaev recalled.

Walking along the red carpet unrolled for him, Gagarin realized one of his shoes was untied. No wonder he was described as unsmiling as he approached the Kremlin leadership awaiting him. He managed not to trip, and went on to adulation.

On Wednesday, China became the third country to send a man into space when taikonaut Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times. He returned in apparent good health to a widely televised official welcome on Thursday but hasn't been seen since, though a Hong Kong crowd paraded in his honor Sunday.

How China, Russia and the United States treated the first space launches tells a good deal about each.

In Gagarin's case, the big news was that he had not died in the effort: RUSSIAN BACK FROM SPACE ALIVE reported the headline across the top of the front page of The Sun on April 12, 1961.

The Soviet Union did not announce its plans or allow outsiders to watch the blastoff or the hour-and-a-half orbit.

Once it looked as if things were going well, Gagarin, a 27-year-old fighter pilot, radioed back that he was fine, and loudspeakers blared the news throughout Moscow, where a heavy snow was falling.

"So far," the Associated Press reported, "there was no announcement that Gagarin was expected to return safely, although it was generally assumed he would since the Russians had said previously they would not send up a man until they were sure they could bring him back."

While the Chinese didn't keep their launch secret, they declined to broadcast the blastoff. After the safe landing, the Xinhua News Agency reported:

"We don't think that the TV live broadcast has any direct bearing on the success of our spaceflight," said Xie Mingbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office. ... What we really care about is to do a good job in launch organization, achieve more technological breakthroughs and do a better job in quality control of the spacecraft, which is key to ensuring a complete success."

Here's a look at how Russia, the United States and China greeted their first men in space.

Russia, April 12, 1961

From the Associated Press, quoting Moscow Radio:

"For those who did not see this picture we should like to give a description of this splendid man. On the [television] screen appears the image of a man aged about 25-28 with a kind, Russian face, eyes set well apart, fine bushy brows and high forehead.

"He wears a flying helmet, a light overall suit. He smiles a good, honest smile. And is there any need to add that this man who has been the first to dare to fly to space, to reach for the stars, to look down on our Earth, is a man of a very great and very real character."

The Soviet Union cast the flight as a great victory for communism, as the late Peter J. Kumpa wrote from The Sun's Moscow bureau:

"Official Moscow rushed preparations for a giant welcome celebration for Maj. Yuri Gagarin, the young Soviet fighter pilot who vowed that he flew into space, not for man or science, but first for the glory of the Communist Party. ...

"The bits of science were so heavily mixed with buckets of politics that it seemed as if the newly made major and stalwart party member had brought down a guarantee of the victory of communism from the heavens."

AP reported: "Premier Chou En-lai of Communist China cabled congratulations to Khrushchev and said the space flight showed `the incomparable superiority of the socialist system greatly increasing the confidence of the people of China and of all other socialist countries in building socialism and communism, and greatly encouraging the people over the world in their struggle against imperialist aggression."

In the United States, congressmen were demanding probes into how the Russians had beaten America into space.

United States, May 5, 1961

Alan B. Shepard Jr., a 37-year-old Naval commander, was launched into space for a short suborbital flight, and like the rest of the nation and the world, President John F. Kennedy was watching on television. From The Sun's London bureau, Louis Rukeyser reported:

"There was particular praise for the openness of the American operation, in contrast to the preflight secrecy when the Soviet Union sent Maj. Yuri Gagarin into orbital flight last month.

" `Before your very eyes the Yanks have put their man in space,' the tabloid Daily Sketch said, adding:

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