On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin launched skyward in a rocket, orbited the Earth once, and returned safely. That 108-minute journey made him the first human to travel into outer space, a source of national pride for the Soviet Union and a spur to the U.S. space program. Weeks later, President John F. Kennedy declared the American goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Back then, at the height of the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet competition in space was fierce. But, as Kennan Institute Director Matthew Rojansky points out, space soon became an arena for cooperation. There’s the Apollo-Soyuz project in the 1970s, the International Space Station in more recent years, and NASA’s reliance on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station after the United States canceled its shuttle program in 2011.
“Whether this kind of cooperation has kept relations here on Earth from going off the rails is harder to say,” Mr. Rojansky, who will host a webcast Tuesday on the Gagarin legacy, writes in an email. “But it has certainly been a positive factor, and one we should seek to continue in the years ahead, despite disagreements in other areas.”
Indeed, 60 years after Gagarin’s brave flight, citizens the world over can celebrate this achievement. And when the National Air and Space Museum in Washington reopens, visitors can view perhaps the ultimate symbol of U.S.-Russian cosmic friendship: spacesuits of both Gagarin and John Glenn – the first American to orbit the Earth – displayed side by side.