Washington, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Just as it was when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth 40 years ago, outer space remains a symbolic battleground where nations often display both their greatest and most ambitious aspirations and their crassest political and economic calculations.
Gagarin's 108-minute flight around the earth on 12 April 1961, immediately became a source of enormous pride for Soviet citizens, a symbol of the USSR's scientific and technological prowess, and a challenge to the United States which then President John F. Kennedy took up by pledging to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
When the American Apollo mission landed on the lunar surface in the summer of 1969, many people in both countries considered the space race over. Both the Soviet and American governments reduced their budgets for space exploration and generally shifted their attention from manned flight to the development of unmanned vehicles to continue the exploration of the cosmos while bringing economic rewards at relatively low cost.
Both countries developed communications and spy satellites. Both looked to the space program as a source of technological innovations that could be applied in their national economies. And by so doing, both eliminated much of the drama and romance of space exploration.
But the commemoration of Gagarin's flight this week and several events around it serve as a reminder of just how important space remains both symbolically and for other reasons as well. With the end of the Cold War, Americans and Russians are joining together in taking pride in what was in 1961 an amazing human achievement. Meetings are being held, stamps issued, and articles are appearing about the significance of his flight.
Not entirely coincidentally, however, two other developments this week highlight the ways in which some national governments seek to exploit human feelings about the mystery and majesty of space to pursue their own policy agendas and more selfish goals.
On 11 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to a Moscow-organized conference on "Outer Space without Weapons -- An Arena of Peaceful Cooperation in the 21st Century." Putin said that "we have a duty to safeguard peace in outer space," adding that "the experience of international space activity shows the need for care in this field."
Cast in this way as a universal human aspiration, Putin's words were in fact quite clearly intended to be part of Moscow's campaign to block American plans to build a national missile defense system, an intention that was highlighted by the decision of both the U.S. and British governments not to take part in the meeting.
Such a political use of space is clearly part of the ebb and flow of international political debate. But Russian officials also this week demonstrated that they view space in a far more crass way as a source of ready cash, something that the hard-pressed Russian space program clearly needs if it is to develop in the future.
These officials took special pride in pointing out that they had overridden American objections and that a private American citizen who was prepared to pay the Russians $20 million for the privilege will in fact be allowed to travel to the International Space Station later this month.
And other administrators at Russia's Khrunichev Space Center announced that they are considering attaching a special module to that station not so much to advance human knowledge or to contribute to space exploration but rather as yet another source of income from other countries willing to pay Moscow for the privilege of using that facility.
Seeking such benefits from space exploration is perhaps not as noble as the goal of going into the unknown, and U.S. space scientists too have often sought to sell their programs to the American people by pointing out the many benefits Americans and others derive from space.
But the outpouring of interest in the Gagarin flight in Russia and around the world serves as a reminder that people still look up to the heavens in wonder and not only to gain political advantage or financial rewards.