Pasadena woman stages global celebration honoring Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin, first man in space
In her Pasadena living room, Loretta Whitesides is making last-minute preparations for a global bash that by all appearances has gone viral.
Partiers by the hundreds Tuesday will pour into the Griffith Observatory and about 300 other sites, from Saudi Arabia to France and Argentina to Nepal. On the Las Vegas Strip, about 800 revelers are expected at Caesars Palace.
The sprawling party is known as Yuri’s Night, the kind of event that during the Cold War might have merited an FBI visit to Whitesides’ home.
But nothing seditious is going on. Whitesides, 36, calls her event “something hip that young people would think is cool.”
Yuri’s Night is a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, Yuri Gagarin’s launch and orbit around the Earth. The flight on April 12, 1961, marked one of the major achievements of human history, if only because scientists and philosophers had dreamed about it for centuries.
But it was also part of a titanic ideological battle and suffused with political propaganda. When word reached America that a member of the Soviet Communist Party had soared into space, it was received as a humiliating technological setback and marked a low point in the Cold War.
Gagarin circled the Earth in 108 minutes, a coup that many Americans had trouble understanding, given the Soviets’ crude, industrial-looking spacecraft.
“For this guy to climb into this tin box stuck together with paper clips and chewing gum was an amazing feat,” said Arch Getty, a UCLA history professor and expert on the Cold War. “The Russian people were tired of the state propaganda. But when they got together and toasted Yuri Gagarin, it wasn’t about toasting socialism. They toasted that they weren’t inferior to America.”
By the time Whitesides conceived of Yuri’s Night in 1999, the Cold War was long over and the two nations had become partners in space. In fact, neither nation’s space program could have existed alone over the last 15 years. The United States helped fund the Russian space agency in the 1990s. And this year the U.S. will retire the space shuttle, meaning that for the foreseeable future astronauts must rely on Russian launch vehicles to reach the space station.
As an astrobiology student at Stanford University and later at Caltech, Whitesides was absorbed with the idea of space. She learned that Gagarin’s flight occurred on her birthday, as did the first space shuttle flight in 1981.
“For me, it was a cosmic coincidence,” she recalled. “I wanted an event that would be hip and youthful. I wanted to attract the art and musical communities.”
She hatched her plans for Yuri’s Night with her future husband, George Whitesides, at a Vienna conference on the peaceful use of space.
After a stint as NASA’s chief of staff that ended last year, he became chief executive of Virgin Galactic, which is building a spacecraft in Mojave to ferry passengers into space for $200,000 apiece.
The couple, who moved to Pasadena earlier this year, promote Yuri’s Night without a budget or a paid staff. They have enlisted a graduate student at MIT and one at Ohio State University as co-directors.
The event at Griffith Observatory will be subdued — no dancing or drinking allowed — but there will be an after-party at a Hollywood nightclub. Some of the other gatherings will include scientific workshops, but they also aim to be loud and fun. In Sydney, there will be a beer-tasting contest named for Gagarin’s spacecraft, Vostok.
But why, Whitesides is often asked, did she have to name the celebration after Gagarin? After all, it also marks the anniversary of the first space shuttle flight. Gargarin seemed like an icon who could bring the world together, she said, and American astronauts weren’t first — nor, apparently, as good-looking.
“Yuri was so handsome,” Whitesides explained.
After some initial grumbling, America’s space luminaries, including NASA chief and former astronaut Charles Bolden, have become great friends of Yuri’s Night, she said.
Even Russians are befuddled by the adoption of their hero by Americans. “The Russian attache said it is very curious Americans would do this,” she recalled.
Whitesides got a Los Angeles artist to draw a cartoon logo that portrays Gagarin in his helmet with his trademark warm smile. When he stood on the Kremlin Wall with Nikita Khrushchev, a sea of adoring women looked on. He became an international celebrity, visiting Communist leaders such as Fidel Castro. At the Paris Air Show, he sat with Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
After his flight, Gagarin made a statement that would endear him to future space cadets: “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it.”
The Communist Party never allowed Gagarin to fly in space again, worried that an accident could rob the U.S.S.R. of one of its greatest heroes.
It had chosen Gagarin carefully from the proletariat. His father was a carpenter on a collective farm. By the time of his flight, he was a lieutenant with a junior college degree. While he was in orbit, the party’s Central Committee promoted him two ranks to major, recalled Michael Cassutt, a Studio City author and an expert on cosmonauts. After the flight, Gagarin went back to school and earned a degree in aeronautical engineering, but he was unhappy. His quick rise to lieutenant colonel left others jealous.
“He was a propaganda tool and he hated it,” Cassutt said. “Until the flight, the Soviets had no idea how useful he would be.”
Years later, Gagarin was allowed to return to the air force and resume his former job as a jet fighter pilot. In March 1968, he died in a crash. He was buried near the Kremlin Wall, not far from the grave of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
In the distant future, will Gagarin be the only early space pioneer remembered, even though the U.S. flew to the moon and eclipsed the Soviets by almost every measure? To space enthusiasts, such comparisons don’t matter any more than whom Christopher Columbus represented.
“We don’t care why an Italian funded by [Spain] was the first to sail to America,” Whitesides said. “What matters is that humanity took the first step.”
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