My how time flies. I hadn’t realized until seeing the Google Doodle today that it was the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first successful manned space flight. I say successful because rumors persist that an earlier flight had crashed but the Soviet-run media never ran with the story. Back then they wouldn’t announce a launch until it had been successfully completed. Unlike the Americans whose failures were broadcast live for all the world to witness. Such is the price for living in an open society.
It is difficult today to realize how huge a celebrity Gagarin was in the USSR. In schools and public buildings across the land there were two portraits displayed, those of whatever wheezy old man currently happened to be the First Secretary of the Communist Party and Gagarin. The only celebrity with comparable stature in this country would be the byproduct of an Oprah and Charlie Sheen mating.
The anniversary reminded me of our trip to the Yuri Gagarin crash site about a dozen years ago. For those of you keeping track, I have a habit of dragging my Long Suffering Spouse to unromantic sites to celebrate special events. I guess it all started on our honeymoon when we toured World War I trench warfare sites. From there it progressed to Fort Sumter for her 40th birthday, the Normandy Beaches for our 20th anniversary and…well you get the idea.
We were celebrating one event or another when I happened to notice on our map that we were only an hour’s drive from the crash site. The 34-year old cosmonaut and his co-pilot were killed in 1968 when their MiG-15 crashed into dense forest in the Vladimir region, just east of Moscow. At the time there were rumors that Brezhnev had arranged the crash due to his jealousy over Gagarin’s celebrity.
Russian’s have a fear of flying. I thought this was because the most famous Hero of the Soviet Republic died in a plane crash. But then I turned on the TV. It seems like news of an Aeroflot accident, usually in some far-flung region eight time zones east of Moscow, is a regular staple of the nightly report. That and the fact that to increase capacity some flights have passengers sit in the bathrooms during takeoff.
How a country can digress from being the first in space to having one of the worst airlines for earthbound travel says it all about having a government planned economy. I guess I’ll be more appreciative when the worst thing about my next US Airways trip is they toss me a bag of salty pretzels for a five hour flight.