Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.

by juli boggs

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight when the Soviet Union flung the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth. Aboard the spacecraft Vostok 1, which means “east” or “dawn” in Russian, the first words communicated back to ground control were “I see Earth. It’s so beautiful!” The simplicity of that line is so moving to me. Its unscripted honesty instantly communicates this magnanimous emotion of what was surely a very difficult and overwhelming moment. It’s practically blurted out. Of course, this is a kind translation of what was actually radioed back. The more literal translation you’ll find is “I see Earth…the mood is buoyant. Beautiful, beautiful it is!” which results in a slightly goofier impression than the finessed version we like to recall.¹

When researching Gagarin you will also invariably come upon the quote “I see no God up here.” As much as I like to imagine a young soviet cosmonaut peeping out the window, the well-penned line has been debunked as it can’t be found in any transcripts from space or Earth. I guess we’ll just have to keep looking (for God as well as the source of the quotation).

The soviet program’s determination for further space feats lead to the hastily introduced and massively unsafe Soyuz rocket which was found to have more than 200 critical flaws leading up to its “commemorative” mission marking the anniversary of Lenin’s birthday. Gagarin, considered too valuable a hero to be placed in danger of a second flight, was grounded as the back-up pilot for his friend and fellow cosmonaut Vladmir Komarov. Despite Gagarin’s and many others’ pleas to ground the flight, Soyuz 1 launched as planned on April 23, 1967 at 00:32, making Komarov the first cosmonaut to see space a second time.

Problems began almost immediately. Power shorted out, navigation went kaput, and five hours after a grueling attempt of manual-reorientation the mission was aborted. While all of this could have been survived, the fatal flaw manifested during re-entry when the parachutes meant to drag the capsule failed to deploy, making for a totally unimpeded fall towards earth. US intelligence agents listening in on the Soyuz radio communications from their station near Istanbul couldn’t understand precisely what was happening, but knew something was wrong. They could hear Komarov telling ground control that he was going to die and everyone on the radio was crying. As the capsule began re-entry Komarov was heard to report the rising temperature inside, that the engineers had killed him, and finally his cries of rage as he crashed into the Earth.²

In the wake of the world’s first space death, people were as terrified as they were thrilled when the Apollo 11 mission to the moon launched three years later in the summer of ’69. As the crew reached its lunar destination three days after take-off on July 19th, the world breathed a collective sigh hearing Neil Armstrong’s famous exclamation, which he ostensibly composed during his 6 hour and 40 minute downtime between the space craft’s actual landing and stepping foot on the lunar surface. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But one small step for man? Wouldn’t that in essence be the same as mankind?

The debate of weather his actual statement of “one small step for a man” was simply misheard and forever remembered incorrectly has continued for years. In the grand scheme of the accomplishment it commemorated, it’s a piddling quibble, but in reviewing radio transcripts even Armstrong was perplexed. In his biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the moonwalker puts the debate to bed. Sort of. “It doesn’t sound like there was time for the word to be there,” Armstrong says. “On the other hand, I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement, and … certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said — although it might actually have been.”³

Armstrong wasn’t the only one rehearsing his lines. Preparing for the worst, William Safire prepared a speech to be read by Nixon called In Event of Moon Disaster, dictating not only what the President would say and who to console, but how to proceed with a burial at sea procedure in commending their space-bound souls to the “deepest of the deep.”

Given that there was no moon disaster, the speech is (like so many relics of the cold war era) a unique and surreal document that’s been all but lost and forgotten in space history archives.

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Amen. May the cosmonauts of the future, be they moon tourists or civilian astronauts, live long and prosper. Meanwhile on earth, we will do our best to quote you warmly and accurately.

¹www.firstorbit.org/media/pdfs/Gagarin_Vostok-1-Transcript.pdf

²http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/04/08/134597833/cosmonaut-crashed-into-earth-crying-in-rage

³http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/4225856.html