April 12, 2021 - 7:00am

Sixty years ago today, we became a spacefaring species. It was, of course, Yuri Gagarin who took that giant leap — becoming the first human being to reach outer space.

It wasn’t a long trip. Lift off was at 6.07 am and he landed back on Earth less than two hours later. However, during his time away he orbited the planet, endured eight gees of acceleration (without blacking out) and completed the last ten minutes of his journey by parachute (having ejected four miles up).

What did you do before breakfast?

His achievement surely places him among the great explorers. However, if he were a Columbus, a Livingstone, or a Lewis and Clark, you can be sure that today there’d be an effort to ‘contextualise’ Gagarin and the Vostok 1 mission.

And by contextualise, I mean problematise. We’d expect some committee of eminent persons to sit in judgement upon Gagarin and the programme he was part of. They’d then take the necessary steps to remind us of any deviation from contemporary ethical standards.

As far as we know, outer space has no indigenous life forms. Therefore, the explorers of the high frontier cannot be accused of exploiting them. However, if one wanted to take away from Gagarin’s achievements there’s plenty else you could get him on.

He was after all, the servant of a murderous totalitarian regime. After his groundbreaking flight, he was a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, to which elections were hardly free and fair. His trips abroad had enormous propaganda value for the Kremlin — so much so that President Kennedy barred him from visiting the United States (an early example of deplatforming).

Gagarin was even dragged into the regime’s renewed anti-religion campaign. A Soviet propaganda poster shows a cosmonaut floating in space looking for God and gleefully not finding Him. (Ironically, there’s evidence that Gagarin was a religious man.)

One might also note that the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the literal launchpad for the Vostok 1 mission, isn’t in Russia, but southern Kazakhstan — a non-European land colonised by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union.

But, of course, there’ll be no handwringing revisionism in this case, because the achievements of the USSR do not count as western achievements. Gagarin’s statues — including the one unveiled ten years ago in London opposite the monument to Captain Cook — will be entirely safe from the woke iconoclasts.

As important as it is to tell the whole truth about humanity’s greatest feats, let’s not imagine that the current vogue for accentuating the negative is an objective endeavour. It is a specifically anti-western project.

Maybe, one day, we’ll contextualise that.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.