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On this day fifty years ago
I was twelve. I woke up at about seven, and switched on my radio. This was an ex-household radio which had been replaced with a radiogram. It must have been manufactured in the 1930s, was over a foot long and about nine-inches high, painted in the same blue and white as the rest of my bedroom, and sitting on its own shelf. I got up, and switched it on, to the Home Service to which I was, even then, addicted.

The news came on.

Suddenly, I was turning somersaults on my bed in joy.

My mother opened the door and asked what on earth I was doing.

"The Russians have sent a man into space!" I yelped.

My mother withdrew, shaking her head. After all, I was her strange science-fiction and space-loving daughter. I followed her across the hall to tell the news to my brother, who was eight then. I'm not sure if he remembers...

But Yuri Gagarin had instantly become my hero. He still is.
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It was one of those huge achievements that change the world. I wasn't born, but he's one of my heroes too.

It's amazing to think of the amount of courage that must have taken for him to climb in that contraption. He was an extraordinary man.

Oddly, I don't remember when I heard the news. I remember my father telling me about the Sputnik, as we walked on Wanstead Flats, but I only remember knowing about Gagarin. And yes, one of the few heroes who seems to have lasted...

I was nine years old and have no personal recollections of Gagarin's flight. Possibly any memories I had of it were overwhelmed when Alan Shepard, who lived just two towns away from me, went into space a few weeks later. It helps that Shepard's launch was on TV and we watched it in school.

I have read that the US government was stunned by the fact that, while most of their population was indifferent to Gagarin's orbital mission the rest of the world cheered and hailed him as a hero, and lauded the Soviet technical advance. Of course, at that time, we had no idea just how many lives both sides were willing to risk for political kudos. Again, from England, Shepard's flight was unimpressive compared to Gargarin's, and seemed basically a vain attempt to grab back some of the glory. And I speak as someone who thinks Shepard was one of the greatest of the US astronauts.

Come to think of it, I recall being rather unimpressed by Shepard's 15 minutes in space. After all, to a nine-year-old, real space flight should mean going at least to Mars!

I'm a great admirer of Alan Shephard's also. I don't think any "population" has a single reaction to anything -- be it the US or the world's. I can't really call anyone who has the courage to climb aboard one of those contraptions and do what they did a person making "a vain attempt to grab back some of the glory."

My father was in aerospace at the time (obviously, being 51, I remember more of the pre-lunar period). I can tell you that the perspective during the whole period was, "Wow, humans are doing these things." And my father was no admirer of Russia.

Maybe one day we'll all be able to look at these achievements as those of humans and not see them as "European" and "American."

And the SF community felt the same - but the general public reaction provoked, among other things, a John W Campbell editorial with a title like "The US Public Does Not Want Spaceflight" (yes, I was reading ASF at 12) which concluded that the American public at the time didn't want startling breakthroughs. He rumbled that, at the time of the invention of the motor car, if polled, the US public would have preferred a better buggy whip to the motor car.

It was a long time ago, but I do remember that the reaction the Gagarin flight was a great deal more muted Stateside, than in Europe and that Alistair Cooke remarked on it in his weekly Letter From America on the BBC.

My goodness, this really is bringing back memories!

Campbell always had a kind of negative attitude toward American culture in general. A lot of that had to do with his love/hate relationship with Heinlein. Campbell was from New Jersey while Heinlein was southern. Ergo, everything inherently American (and thus rural) became a negative thing to Campbell. The medium is the message. As for Cooke, well, one can't divide the the perception from the percipient. Whenever it comes from another culture, it's always going to have a skewed perspective to some degree.

I think the US public, by virtue of the sheer number of inventors, both good and bad, we gave birth to, were as discovery-oriented and technology-seeking as any other ethnic group. In his lifetime, my grandfather literally watched the Wright Brothers test their plane (he crawled under a fence) and also saw the first shuttle flights.

As a liberal isolationist to some degree, I have to say I see a certain value in first developing a better buggy whip before the car.


The USA, viewed from outside, is a mass of contradictions. It has a huge undereducated population which believes in Adam and Eve and the Rapture, and yet has some of the greatest research establishments, research scientists and manufacturers in the world. It has a model constitution, yet is one of the few democracies in the world to retain the death penalty and lets citizens (including some on my flist) suffer horrible diseases and even die because they can't afford insurance that costs far more than anyone else's universal healthcare systems. It insists on its law running in other countries, on unfair extradition treaties, and also rejecting international law. Yet some areas of the US rival the most liberal of European countries (not mine) in their local legal systems.

Can you blame Western Europe for finding you confusing?

It was Asimov who Campbell argued with most often. Campbell was basically a Liberatarian who loathed big government and Asimov a Liberal. But the thing about Campbell was, his arguments always require an answer in that they are logical and fact-backed. I rarely agreed with him, but I could never just reject him as "wrong". (On the other hand, the most objectionable parts of RAH were generally easier to refute.)

Gosh, I didn't know Western Europe had an opinion about me. lol I find myself confusing sometimes, too. Seriously, that's the problem we fall into when we start the us/them ... you/me stuff.

We're different, just like the rest of the world. That doesn't make us "wrong" ... it means we're different. Europeans, in general (since we're talking generally), are the ones who took over the world and told non-white people (including my own Cherokee ancestors -- and we won't even get into my Irish ancestors) what to think and believe. The US is merely stumbling along in the big footprints of Europe.

I wonder sometimes if the hatred for America in Europe isn't anything more than Europe's own shame of the past, focused outward. I don't understand much of what I see in Europe. My sister, who is a historian of Europe, explains things to me as best she can. As brutal as our system has been and can be, we've never done anything with quite the cold-hearted brutality of the Holocaust. Not even the Indian expansion rivaled that.

Now even Sarkozy is acting like a mini-George Bush and yet that's okay to the EU press because he's European.

I might point out that our tax dollars went to supposedly "protect" Europe while Europeans could afford to provide free health care to many of their own people. Europe has its own mass of inconsistencies. My teenaged uncle died in WWII and yet recently a European friend told me about German teenagers urinating on WWII memorials. My father-in-law, who was in the clean-up crew of the death camps, was spit on by French officials when they found out he was American. That I can't understand either. How is that acceptable when the US isn't? This seems to be nothing more than simplistic tribalism.

The US is not a single country any more than Europe is. We're an amalgam of cultures. As you've noted, California has laws that make many European laws look like fascist rule. We have the death penalty, but we don't use it. Many "death row" inmates grow old and die before getting anywhere near the death room. The only reason we have it is to sate the blood lust of central California Republicans. When we had the So California fires, every displaced person was cared for.

Our "huge undereducated population" is, indeed, a problem. However, they are as varied as you are making them sound uniform. I understand Dixie, my family comes from there. I know they are far more cynical and conflicted than it seems. They present a united front because of history, but the amount of atheism there would astonish you. They also don't feel the need to explain themselves. They stay to themselves, take care of their own, are inherently isolationist, and don't poke around in the business of their neighbors. There are many good things about those people. It's not all bad.

As for our health care, you know my opinion on that. However, the perspective of that, as it now stands, is very skewed abroad. Certainly, the GOP (using the "they hate us!" mentality about socialism) wants to do away with all of it but, right now, no American can be denied health care. If they show up at a Federally-funded institution, they must be cared for, according to law. Many states have locally provided health care plans (Hawaii, for one). I have a HMO to which I belong.

Just as the Fox News media tries to convince us socialists are evil, the more left-leaning, pro-EU media wants to persuade all of you that Americans are "icky" (one word I heard recently) ... "ignorant" ... "evil," etc. Many of the terms they use remind me of Victorian racist diatribes about the "inbred US." Sorry, I think a lot of that is nothing but plain, old racism (in the sense that we are all "races").

This will be my last post here on this thread. I didn't mean to get into a vast dialogue. lol Have your last word and we'll leave it here.

Edited at 2011-04-12 07:28 pm (UTC)

I'm not going to go deeply into this.

But one thing I will say; NATO was and is a mutual protection organisation. It very much suited the US to have its forces in Europe so that the next war, if any, would be fought there. Keeping the USSR at arms length was one of its main aims, as the Cuban missile crisis proved. Many Europeans thought this made us a much greater target than the US, and they were probably right. We were certainly more likely to be wiped out completely.

Germany was not, of course, allowed to have an army until many, many years after WW.

A fun childhood memory. :) I can't imagine how utterly amazing it must have been, being slightly younger than you, to have experienced that day.

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