AMES, Iowa -- The unmanned Soviet satellite Sputnik continues to be associated with the dawn of space exploration, most recently being cited by President Obama in January's State of the Union address. But Iowa State University history professor James Andrews contends that Yuri Gagarin may be an even bigger Soviet name as a space pioneer -- particularly this year.
Gagarin was the Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to journey into outer space on April 12, 1961 -- an event that will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. And as documented in "Space Exploration and Soviet Culture" -- a new book Andrews co-edited that will be published this fall -- Gagarin's space mission was at least as significant historically as Sputnik's.
"I can't underscore how important this was," said Andrews, a professor of modern Russian and comparative Eurasian history at Iowa State who has spoken twice at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum on Soviet rocketry and space exploration history.
"I almost wonder whether Sputnik in our popular consciousness has eclipsed Gagarin, because at the time that was not the case -- not for everyday Soviets and the Soviet leadership," he continued. "For them, I think that Gagarin was almost more spectacular. That's because it was palpable -- a human being who survived a trip to space and came back. And the heroic nature of that mission is what made Gagarin a Soviet icon."
Access to the newly opened Soviet archives
Andrews learned just how proud the Soviet leadership was of Gagarin's space success through his vast research of newly opened Soviet archives, memorabilia, news reports, letters and personal accounts -- including memoirs by Sergei Khrushchev, the son of Nikita Khrushchev, the iconic Soviet premier at the time. The younger Khrushchev is now a senior fellow at the Thomas Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University and endorsed Andrews' 2009 book, "Red Cosmos: K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Soviet Rocketry."
"He read my book before it was published and endorsed it," Andrews said. "And I feel very good about that because not only is he now a political analyst, but during his father's era and afterward -- before he immigrated -- he was a missile systems guidance engineer. So his life and career was inextricably linked with these investments [to rocketry and space exploration] on the part of the regime."
Even though "Red Cosmos" largely focused on the period before the space race captured the world's attention, Andrews foreshadows his new book with an account of Nikita Khrushchev's April 1961 diplomatic gala in the Kremlin to honor Gagarin on his historic mission. And that was by design.
"I would consider what I've done over the last 10 years with these two books as a kind of two-volume look at first the cultural and political roots of Russian rocketry through Tsiolkovskii, their icon; and then a second volume that deals more specifically with the real space age -- the '50s, '60s and '70s," Andrews said. "The problem I've seen in the past is that most of what has been written on Soviet space prior to these books was limited to the politics, the military element and the institutions. They only looked previously at the scientific and technical aspects of the space age. These books tie space exploration to broader issues in Russian culture, which it's been divorced from in the past."
Book explores early cosmonauts hopes and fears
The forthcoming book is a collection of essays by noted scholars on the post-World War II Soviet space age and its cultural history. Andrews authored the introduction and one of its chapters on Soviet popular culture and space exploration at the dawn of Sputnik.
The book also explores the hopes and fears of the earliest Soviet cosmonauts.
"Many of the early cosmonauts were test pilots and felt that even with the new planes they tested, they were at least in a little more control. Whereas with automated rockets, they felt like they were -- in many respects -- relinquishing that control to engineers," Andrews said. "So what we're finding was that their fear was not as much going into outer space necessarily, but losing control of one's airship. It sounds like that was the great quantum leap, as we're learning from these cosmonauts."
The most famous of those cosmonauts was Gagarin, who left his undeniable mark on both space exploration and Soviet cultural history.
"It's very important to think about Gagarin's flight in its context -- particularly what it meant to Russians of the 1960s," Andrews said. "They [the Soviets] had been the first [to put a human in space], and that was very important to them."
Andrews is now working on a book project on the building of the Moscow Metro, which he considers to be an engineering marvel that -- like the Soviet space program -- showcases the nation's technical and cultural history.