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“A Machine for Epiphanies”: How Soviet Icons Sell Space

Sixty years after Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth his image is used to market privatised space travel to the ultra-rich, Thomas Ellis reports.

20 May 2021

“A Machine for Epiphanies”: How Soviet Icons Sell Space

Last month space enthusiasts around the world celebrated sixty years of human spaceflight. On the twelfth of April 1961, a twenty-seven-year-old Soviet Air Force officer named Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in his spacecraft Vostok 1. Across the Russian Federation, Gagarin’s 106-minute flight was commemorated with speeches, lectures and flower-laying ceremonies at monuments to the cosmonauts and engineers who had opened the path to space. President Vladimir Putin made a solemn pilgrimage to the town of Engels on the Volga River where Gagarin had landed sixty years before, accompanied by Valentina Tereshkova, the first female space traveller as occupant of Vostok 6. Alongside the staid, time-honoured rituals of Russia’s annual “Cosmonautics Day”, the twelfth of April also saw the twentieth ‘Yuri’s Night’, an annual ‘World Space Party’. On the official livestream, Yuri’s Night’s cofounders Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides and George Whitesides interviewed scientists, astronauts and authors, hosted cocktail making demonstrations and screened an elaborate OK Go music video filmed in the low gravity conditions of a parabolic aircraft flight.

A recurring theme of the Yuri’s Night livestream was the transformative power of spaceflight. Looking down at the Earth from their heavenly vantage point, spacefarers supposedly experience a transcendent shift in consciousness as they see a world without national and political distinctions and are reminded of the fragility of human existence. This idea, known as ‘The Overview Effect’, after Frank White’s 1987 book of the same name, is central to the sales pitch made by the ‘New Space’ corporations like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. As Jarvis Cocker once sang “everybody hates a tourist”, and those engaged in space tourism are keen to stress their activities are more meaningful than sightseeing. When couched in the language of the overview effect, space tourism is transformed from extravagant getaway into a moral duty: a transcendental experience that holds the key to humanity’s survival on Earth and beyond. To sell this vision, New Space marketers have claimed Yuri Gagarin as one of their own. The boy from the collective farm near Gzhatsk is no longer a Russian hero or harbinger of the victory of Soviet communism, but the first to undergo an unparalleled spiritual experience.

Yuri Gagarin orbited over a divided world. Jubilant Muscovites crowded into Red Square in numbers not seen since victory celebrations at the end of the Great Patriotic War. Meanwhile, when eleven US newspapers surveyed a random selection of Joe Smiths from across the United States about Gagarin’s flight, the American everymen expressed doubts and consternation. Sixty-three-year-old Joe Smith of Miami disparaged the flight as ‘a bunch of Russian lies. I think it’s propaganda to break us down but they won’t break down (President) Kennedy. Flying in space is against God’s wishes.’ With the USSR strictly controlling information about its spaceflights, speculation was rampant. Lurid rumours abounded in the West that Gagarin was merely the first Soviet to return from space alive and that Soviet authorities had covered up numerous ‘Lost Cosmonaut’ fatalities in space.

For the Communist Party, Gagarin was a propaganda triumph who symbolised the USSR’s rapid ascent to superpower status. The Soviet writer Vladimir Orlov enthused that “all the motors in the Gagarin ship totalled 20 million horsepower. This means that the chariot of the Soviet cosmonaut was drawn by all the horses of Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century.” After his flight, Gagarin kept up a remorseless schedule of diplomatic tours and public appearances, drawing adoring crowds that would lead General Nikolai Kamanin, head of the cosmonaut training programme, to liken the first cosmonaut to Jesus Christ. Following Gagarin’s tragic death in a 1968 aviation accident, the cosmonaut’s heroic image was literally set in stone with statues, murals and mosaics across the Eastern Bloc immortalising the youthful space traveller.

Asif Siddiqi, a historian of the Soviet space programme, has traced how propagandists and space museum curators created “a unifying ‘consensus narrative’ that fostered a shared sense of identity among both participants and observers of the space programme, an identity that underpinned the myth of a Soviet space effort whose engine was heroism, ingenuity and, most of all, priority.” Central to this narrative was a holy trinity of space heroes: Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the visionary rocket scientist whose equations had proved spaceflight was possible, engineer-manager Sergei Korolev who masterminded the programme that sent the Sputniks into orbit and Yuri Gagarin: the eternally smiling golden boy. By the time the US and USSR began tentatively exploring space cooperation after America’s 1969 victory in the Moon Race, this official narrative had ossified into a secular religion. When Arnold Frutkin, NASA’s Assistant Administrator for International Affairs, visited the Soviet Union in 1971 he was shocked by the ‘virtual deification of the astronauts, especially Gagarin’.

The Soviet Union’s collapse foreclosed the bright future of cosmic communism foretold by Gagarin. In October 1991, Victor Blagov, Programme Director for the Mir space station, offered the following blunt prognosis: “If there is no governmental money we will earn it ourselves or we will perish. Like any firm, if it does not have money, it has to find partners and make money or go bankrupt. There is no third way.”

Auctioning off space artefacts proved a reliable way of making quick money. Siddiqi argues that “the state’s withdrawal produced conditions where memory was ‘privatised’ as atomised and decentralised views of history populated the landscape of remembrance.” One of the most astounding artefacts sold by Sotheby’s during one of its blockbuster 1990s Soviet space auctions was Lunokhod 2: a 1970s robotic lunar rover that is still on the Moon. The winning bidder was internet gaming magnate and future space tourist Richard Garriott. In a Twitter discussion with the space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman, Garriott stated that he had bought the Lunokhod partly to set a legal precedent for extra-terrestrial property rights: “I believed the 1st private ownership off Earth was historically significant”. As the 1990s wore on, Russian cosmonauts found themselves conscripted into appearing in space-filmed adverts for Pepsi cola and Tnuva, an Israeli dairy concern. By the end of the decade there were abortive discussions about turning the Mir Space Station into the set for a space-based reality TV show or orbiting ’N Sync’s Lance Bass as the first celebrity space tourist.

The collapse of the USSR shattered the old Soviet ‘consensus narrative’ of space exploration but recent years have seen private space corporations attempt to construct their own overarching story. In this story, humanity is outgrowing a reliance on government-directed space programmes as it embarks upon a transformative era of space commerce. Figures from the Cold War space race are ripped from their historical context and repurposed as daring dreamers who pointed the way towards this brave new world.

In an attempt to brand the future of Space exploration, SpaceX’s Elon Musk has repeatedly attempted to draw a line from yesterday’s space pioneers through to himself and his company. Musk is fond of quoting Russian space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s famous aphorism ‘Earth is the cradle of humanity, you cannot stay in the cradle forever.’ and has demonstrated a particular affinity for Sergei Korolev, the Soviet space programme’s legendary Chief Designer. Musk sees Korolev as a kindred spirit and while both men are charismatic managers with a gift for navigating the cutthroat world of the aerospace industry, Musk’s ascent to the stars has been much smoother than that of his Soviet counterpart. Whereas Musk came from an affluent background and made his money in the heyday of the 1990s dotcom bubble, Korolev’s early career was blighted by Stalin’s purges. In 1937 his farsighted patron Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was executed for treason. Korolev was arrested the following year and barely survived his stay in a GULAG camp in Kolyma, Eastern Siberia.

Musk’s relationship with contemporary Russian space barons is more strained. In 2001, Musk travelled to Russia to investigate purchasing space technology, where one rocket designer was apparently so incensed by the American tech billionaire’s attitude that he spat on his shoes. In 2014, Dmitri Rogozin, the truculent nationalist who runs Roscosmos (the Russian Federation’s closest equivalent to NASA), responded to news of US sanctions on Russia by sarcastically suggesting that NASA use a trampoline to access the International Space Station. After the successful debut of his Crew Dragon spacecraft which broke the Russian monopoly on crewed flights to the ISS, Musk tweeted “The Trampoline is working”. Following a phone call with Musk last year, Korolev’s grandson Andrei was quick to criticise Rogozin’s outburst “Everyone who read and saw that was embarrassed”.

Musk is not alone in his attempt to cast himself and his work as heirs to the space heroes of old; Virgin Galactic has also woven space history into its marketing material. In a statement honouring Gagarin’s 60th anniversary, Sandy Magnus, former NASA Astronaut and Virgin Galactic Space Advisory Board Member, hailed Vostok 1 for “expanding our awareness and perception of our world, and embarking us on a journey that changes our relationship to the cosmos. Every year since, the number of humans experiencing this unique perspective has increased; a trend that is only going to accelerate. As more people have the opportunity to share this shift in perception, the whole planet will benefit.” For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Virgin Galactic unveiled a colossal circular bronze sculpture at Cape Canaveral Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Chronologically arranged around its rim are 360 aviation and astronautical milestones. These range from mythical flights of Icarus and Bellerophon through the Montgolfier and Wright brothers to the flights of Sputnik, Gagarin and more recent spacefarers and finally ending with Richard Branson. The image of Virgin Galactic as the endpoint of aeronautical evolution is central to the company’s ‘DNA of Flight’ branding which depicts a series of silhouettes evolving from Icarus to airplanes to Apollo to Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo. In Virgin Galactic’s branding, all of human history ultimately culminates with Richard Branson.

It was Virgin Galactic’s vision of space tourism that loomed largest in the Yuri’s Night Livestream because of the festival founders’ close relationship with the company. George Whitesides formerly served as Virgin Galactic’s CEO and Chief Space Officer and remains on its Advisory Board while Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides is a ‘Founder Astronaut’ scheduled to fly on one of SpaceShipTwo’s first suborbital flights. George Whitesides introduced Richard Branson, appearing via video-link, as “a force of good on the planet, and we need more forces of good”. In a promotional film screened by Branson, viewers are introduced to Virgin Galactic’s Experience Architect Joe Rohde. A former ‘imagineer’ with Disney’s theme parks, Rohde depicts humanity as poised at the dawn of a new space age, claiming that by offering customers the chance to experience the overview effect, a “spectacularly unique opportunity with a huge potential for transformational change in a person”, Virgin’s spacecraft is a “machine for epiphanies, a machine for activism... a machine for producing heroes”.

Like the cosmonaut hero of the Soviet consensus narrative, the Gagarin of Yuri’s Night is a carefully airbrushed creation. In the Yuri’s Night logo, a stylised image of Gagarin smiles blankly, the initials ‘CCCP’ absent from his pressure suit helmet. Yuri’s Night divorces Gagarin from his Russian and Soviet context to depict him as the first global citizen. A paper describing the rationale of Yuri’s Night co-authored by Ryan L. Kobrick (Yuri’s Night President 2010-2018) claims that “Gagarin himself is quoted as saying some extremely un-military and un-Soviet things after his return from space”. In reality, Gagarin spent his post-flight life loudly and frequently praising the communist system that sent him into orbit. His biographer Andrew Jenks details how, in his spare moments, Gagarin found time to chide avant-garde writers for their lack of attention to “everyday heroism” and to complain that the images on Soviet stamps were insufficiently militaristic. As a result, when it comes to quoting the cosmonaut, Yuri’s Night branding invariably chooses a statement that anticipates overview effect rhetoric. “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marvelled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!”

One problem with the overview effect is that while many spacefarers have spoken reverentially of gazing in awe at Earth from orbit, others appear to have shrugged off this supposedly transformative experience with ease. Far from being world-changing environmentalists, spacefarer-politicians have tended to be remarkably conservative. Vostok 2 cosmonaut Gherman Titov was renowned for his lyrical descriptions of Earth’s beauty but spent his post-flight career designing military space systems before becoming a Communist Party politician after the USSR’s collapse. Today, Valentina Tereshkova serves as a member of the Duma for Putin’s United Russia party and last year proposed the constitutional amendment that could allow the Russian President to remain in power until well into the 2030s. In the United States, astronaut-turned-Senator John Glenn was a stolid centrist rather than bold visionary and the Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt spent much of his single term as Republican Senator for New Mexico calling for greater investment in military space programmes. He is now a prominent climate change sceptic.

The creators and organisers of Yuri’s Night have fostered a vibrant global network of events celebrating humanity’s technological ingenuity and the imaginative draw of outer space. However, the emphasis on celebration rather than reflection risks avoiding difficult questions about the wisdom of letting billionaires like Branson, Musk and Bezos dominate orbital activities. For all Virgin Galactic’s talk of “democratising space”, space tourism will remain an elitist pursuit, a spiritual retreat for high-powered executives rather than anything resembling a genuine mass movement. Given the enormity and complexity of the problems we face as a species, breathless accounts of the overview effect sound like wishful thinking: shove enough billionaires into the epiphany machine and we will hopefully find a solution to anthropogenic global heating. To sell their vision of space exploration’s future, New Space corporations insinuate themselves into its past, reducing space history to a parade of victories inevitably evolving towards their own ascendance. Fifty-three years after his death, Yuri Gagarin finds himself once again the poster boy for a mythic story of space conquest.


Andrew Jenks, The Cosmonaut Who Couldn’t Stop Smiling: The Life and Legend of Yuri Gagarin (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014)

Asif Siddiqi “Privatising Memory: The Soviet Space Program through Museums and Memoirs” in Showcasing Space ed. by Martin Collins & Douglas Millard (London: NMSI Trading, 2005)

Ryan Kobrick, R. Brice Russ, and Timothy Bailey (2011). “Yuri's Night: Linking the World Together with an International Space Celebration”, 41st International Conference on Environmental Systems, Portland Oregon, July, 2011.


Thomas Ellis is LSE Fellow in American History and is currently writing a history of American perceptions of the Soviet space programme. You can find him on Twitter.