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Space enthusiasts mark April 12th as “Yuri’s Night Out,” a celebration of the first human in space: Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961. But Gagarin’s trip was courtesy of the Soviet government, which was hostile to the individual liberty that is the mark of civilization. Gagarin’s flight was still an achievement that marked a monumental turning point in human history and reflected values actually held in common by many in East and West, values that are, sadly, under siege in our world today.
While political and military concerns drove the Cold War race into space and to the Moon, many of the men and women involved were motivated by the goals of exploration and knowledge. America no doubt reached the Moon before the Soviet Union in part because our society was more open and free. Both sides had technical failures. But the dictatorial Soviet system meant few in the space program would speak truth to leadership.
Indeed, Gagarin himself was scheduled as the backup astronaut on a mission to dock two capsules in space, ordered by Soviet boss Brezhnev to mark the 50th anniversary of the communist takeover of Russia. Gagarin and his colleagues knew the capsules were death traps, but those who questioned orders found themselves demoted or worse. Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when his failing craft crashed back to earth.
Ultimately, the Soviet’s socialist economy and closed political system collapsed under its own contradictions. At the same time, the socialistic left’s belief in technological modernity collapsed as well.
Karl Marx celebrated the Industrial Revolution’s production of immense wealth. (He was profoundly wrong in his belief that capitalists in market economies reaped the lion’s share of that wealth by exploiting workers.) This belief in the power of technology was a hallmark of the old left.
Soviet leaders sought to modernize their country—building power plants, subways, and cars. Their centrally planned economic system, however, undermined this aim and caused it to fail. And their brutal exploitation of individual human beings as mere instruments for their grand collectivist designs was morally inexcusable.
The softer socialist H.G. Wells himself expressed the spirit of many on the left in his 1936 film Things to Come. It traces the collapse of Britain into perpetual war followed by the rule of a technological elite that engineers a near utopian city. But even this utopia houses Luddites who seek to stop an attempt to shoot a spacecraft around the Moon. When the craft finally hurtles into the sky, one member of the elite, echoing concerns of the Luddites, asks, “Is there never to be any rest?” The leader’s answer:
Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon, and we call it death. But for man, no rest and no ending. He must go on conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet and its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.
Wells’s leader points into space and declares with a flourish, “All the universe or nothing.”
Today more and more leftists reject the values of technological progress and modernity, and any notion of heroic achievement. They wallow timidly in the mud of environmental extremism that sees humans as trespassers and destroyers of the world. Rather than seeing the environment as a resource to be utilized for human life and comfort, their aspirations are symbolized by Earth Hour, when they ask everyone to turn off their lights as “a massive show of concern for the environment” as if it is a goddess who’s wellbeing trumps that of humans.
But morally healthy people today, especially the young, yearn for the sight of achievement and the reality of a prosperous world of plenty. That world requires individuals to embrace technology, which at least the old leftists did, but also liberty, which leftists old and new wrongly reject. So raise a glass to Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight and to the value of all human achievement!
Edward Hudgins, "Four Facts for Human Achievement Day." July 20, 2015.
William Thomas, "Progressives: Are They for Progress?" January 11, 2012.
Edward Hudgins, "America's Pioneer Spirit: Government vs. New Frontiers." February 10, 2011.
Edward Hudgins, "Apollo 11 on Human Achievement Day." July 20, 2005.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.