The stunt that stunted space exploration

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Fifty years after Yuri Gagarin’s famous mission, Professor Gerard DeGroot questions the value of his flight for space strategy.

Fifty years ago today, on 12 April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space by making one orbit of earth in his Vostok capsule.

On this important anniversary, Professor Gerard DeGroot of the University of St Andrews has released new research suggesting that Gagarin’s flight was a backward step for space exploration and satellite technology.

Professor DeGroot argues:

“At the precise moment when the US was poised to capitalise on a commanding lead in space science, she was instead plunged into a macho space race focused on the costly adventure of manned space travel, which severely limited what could be achieved in the cosmos.”

Prior to Gagarin, President John Kennedy was adamantly opposed to manned space travel, which he thought a pointless diversion from the satellite research on which the US was concentrating. The Gagarin feat, however, permanently changed the dynamic of the Cold War, wrongly convincing the American people that they were dangerously behind the Soviet Union in space.

A panicked Kennedy asked his advisers:

“Is there any place we can catch them? If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody, anybody, I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how. There’s nothing more important.”

Professor DeGroot argues: “Without Gagarin the Americans might never have decided to go to the moon”. Kennedy chose the moon mission because it was an infinitely more complicated challenge than simply putting a man into orbit, and thus offered the Americans the time they needed to catch the Russians in the space race. The moon had no importance other than as a finishing line in a race for prestige.

Kennedy has been wrongly praised as a space visionary, when in fact he deeply regretted being forced into a race to the Moon and the effect this had upon his domestic programmes. In April 1963, he told a reporter: “Don’t you think I would rather spend these billions on … health and education and welfare? But in this matter we have no choice. The Nation’s prestige is too heavily involved.” Before he died, he confessed to the NASA administrator James Webb: “I am not that interested in space”‘ and complained that the Apollo mission had “wrecked our budget”.

“The main reason the Americans have not returned to the Moon”, argues DeGroot, “is because they originally went for the wrong reason. Once the race was won, and a point proved, there seemed little sense in going again.” Kennedy’s reaction to Gagarin set a pattern for space ventures which remains predominant to this day. As the ambitions of China and India now indicate, the fixation with man in space became, thanks to Gagarin, a paradigm—a test of a nation’s virility, important not for what could be achieved out there, but for the prestige it earned back on Earth. As a result, genuine space science continues to suffer.


Professor Gerard DeGroot is the author of Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (2006), in addition to eleven other books.

He is available for interview on 01334 462 898 or email [email protected].

Issued by the University of St Andrews

Contact: Emma Shea, Communications Manager, on 01334 462 109 or email [email protected].

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