By Ben Goldson

“Downpour notwithstanding, Manchester let Yuri Gagarin in no doubt that the great city had never had a more welcome visitor”

“Hail Gagarin”. British Pathe Newsreel, July 1961


On 12 April 1961, from a launch pad deep inside the Soviet Union, a Vostok-3KA rocket successfully propelled Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into outer space. The 27-year-old Senior Lieutenant even returned to Earth alive and did so as an overnight celebrity. A loyal soldier, he would be sent to whatever country would host him, as living proof of the (apparent) supremacy of the Soviet system. Eventually promoted to full Colonel, Gagarin would die on board a MiG-15 fighter jet in 1968. The Soviet authorities had certainly squeezed Gagarin – who reportedly struggled with the fame – for all the propaganda value he was worth. There were, however, more practical reasons behind the technology which had carried him into orbit and made him a celebrity.

The first recorded use of rocketry in warfare goes back to Ming China (1368–1644). Tubes of gunpowder, fired in the general direction of the enemy, were cheap to produce and terrifying to behold. During the late 18th century British forces encountered the first iron-clad rockets in their colonial wars with Mysore in Southern India. Always ready to adopt new methods of killing, the British soon began to field their own. In 1814, during an attempted invasion of Baltimore, rockets would be launched at the city, putting the “red glare” into the Spar-Spangled Banner, a line which would come to be grimly prescient in the Cold War. By this time rocket technology had come a long way. During the later stages of the Second World War, as the Third Reich collapsed, an increasingly desperate Adolf Hitler had commissioned the development of various experimental weapons or Wunderwaffe (“miracle weapons”). Intended to strike dramatic blows against the advancing allies, most were beset with technical problems, or never made it past the planning stage. Of those that did, it was the V1 and V2 rockets which proved to be most influential. Such “vergeltungswaffen” (“retaliatory weapons”) came too late to be used for anything more than constant harassment of urban centres. Yet they were innovative prototypes for the defining weapon of the Cold War: the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

In the aftermath of Hitler’s downfall, his scientists were scooped up by the victorious powers. Some, such as Werner von Braun, were lucky. The former SS Sturmbannführer was spirited out of Germany by the CIA, and would find work with NASA, as well as the Walt Disney Company. The less fortunate were instead renditioned into the USSR, the post-war superpower with the most to gain from their expertise. While the United States’ unique historical position as the only nuclear-armed country had ended in 1949, this meant little in the face of overwhelming air superiority. A missile, on the other hand, could outrun conventional defences to strike the fatal blow in a hypothetical doomsday scenario. As it happened, the Soviet Space Programme officially began in 1953 under director, and Gulag survivor, Sergei Korolev. By August 1957 a R-7 Semyorka had been launched from the Baikomour Cosmodrone in Kazakhstan, travelling around 6000k kilometres before crashing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This flight, more than twice the distance between London and Moscow, recalibrated the balance of power in the Cold War.

Korolev had earned his freedom, and permission for the launch of a converted Semyorka – this time bearing the payload of a simple sphere attached to four antennas (“Sputnik”) – as proof to anyone with a radio transmitter that the Russians had taken the first major step in the Space Race. Before years end the United States would, again, be beaten to the second launch of an artificial satellite by the Soviet Union. To add insult to injury Sputnik-2 also contained the first live cargo to enter space: a stray dog from the streets of Moscow, posthumously named Laika. Finally, in December, the highly publicised Project Vanguard attempted to replicate these Soviet successes. At Cape Canaveral, broadcast live to the world, the rocket climbed slightly more than a meter off the ground, stalled, and collapsed back to earth in a fiery explosion. It would be early 1958 before the self-described leader of the free world managed to launch a satellite into orbit.

In their rush to develop ICBM technology Korolev’s employers had perhaps underestimated the civilian potential of the Space Race. Their primary objective had been a weapon that could close the military gap between them and the United States. Once they had such a weapon they were happy to indulge Korolev’s dreams of spaceflight. With the contrasting media coverage given to the Sputnik and Vanguard (“flopnik”) projects, however, it was inevitable that the Soviet authorities would recognise the use of a peaceful application of this new technology. The Cold War was — at least in theory — a war of ideas, of systems, of who would lead the world into the future; and in this measure of human progress, the USSR was clearly leading.

This state of affairs was not well-received in the United States, which had only just seen the end of the Second Red Scare — most associated with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. America was supposed to be the greatest country on earth. They were the ones who did things first, not the godless, backward, and tyrannical Soviet Union. Moreover, while the average American in 1958 may not have realised the exact ramifications of nuclear warfare and rocket technology, it was clear that control of outer space was not something that should be relinquished to the schemers in the Kremlin. By July outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower had ordered the centralisation of research into a single body, NASA. This new agency would go head-to-head with Korolev and his team, but again, it was the latter that would come out on top. First in 1959 with the three official Luna launches reaching the vicinity, surface, and far side of the moon; as well as in 1961, on April the 12th.

The news of yet another milestone ticked off by the enemy came at a bad time for the United States. Five days after Gagarin returned to Earth, the CIA would sponsor Cuban exiles in their attempt to topple the upstart Castro government through landings at the Bay of Pigs. This failed, solidifying support for the new authorities, and further pushing them towards Moscow. A natural ally for the enemies of America, especially left-wing anti-colonial movements, the Soviet Union would use its superpower status as evidence of their system at work, in contrast to the corruption of figures such as Batista. After all, a country which could beat the mighty United States to a feat such as Gagarin’s had to be doing something right, and as ever, there were the more practical implications of rocket technology.

In 1962 these implications — the practical and the political — would collide, after an October flight by a U-2 spy plane over Cuba returned with photos of missile silos, presumably containing weapons pointed at American cities. A stand-off ensued, ending in the removal of Soviet weaponry from their new ally, Castro, who was not himself consulted. In exchange, the United States did the same in Turkey. Nuclear annihilation was avoided, and yet the weapons which risked total destruction continued to spread. Their numbers would not decline until after the anti-nuclear treaties of the next decades. As the world had come together to marvel at the feats of Yuri Gagarin, they now lived as one in fear of apocalyptic missiles. Rockets had allowed humanity to truly leave Earth behind, and now they threatened its destruction.

Ben Goldson is a history graduate from the University of Auckland and a reporter at 95bFM radio in Auckland. He is the host of This Day in History on 95bFM’s news and current affairs show The Wire.