Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two April 12ths, Maybe Three

Today's a remarkable double-shot anniversary: The firing at Ft. Sumter, and then 100 years later, the launch of Yuri Gagarin into space. Both events are worth thinking about at some length.

For the occasion of the Fort Sumter's sesquicentennial, I picked up 1861 by Adam Goodheart, published this year in time for the Civil War sesquicentennial. I've only read about 20 pages so far, but it's good reading. True to the spirit of historical inquiry in modern times, Goodheart starts off with some interesting revision. Or perhaps in this case, re-revision.

When South Carolina seceded, the U.S. Army presence in Charleston Harbor was mostly at Fort Moultrie, under the command of Maj. Robert Anderson. Unlike Sumter, Moultrie was essentially indefensible.

"It would be one thing if President Buchanan had simply announced that he was withdrawing the troops from Charleston Harbor and turning the forts over to South Carolina, a decision that Anderson would have certainly obeyed, perhaps even welcomed," Goodheart writes. "But he would be damned if he was to surrender -- even worse, perform a shabby pantomime of a surrender -- before a rabble of whiskey-soaked militiamen and canting politicians."

Under the cover of darkness on December 26, 1860, Anderson moved his command to Fort Sumter. "Like so much else about the beginning of the Civil War, Major Anderson's move from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter is largely forgotten today. At the time, however, the little garrison's mile-long journey was seen not just as a masterstroke of military cunning but as the opening scene of a great and terrible national drama... 'Major Robert Anderson, thundered the Charleston Courier, 'has achieved the unenviable distinction of opening civil war between American citizens by a gross breach of faith.' Northerners, meanwhile, held enormous public banquets in Anderson's honor; cannons fired salutes in New York, Chicago, Boston, and dozens of other cities and towns.

"And considered in retrospect, Anderson's move seems freighted with even more symbolism. He lowered his flag on an old fortress, hallowed by the past, yet half ruined -- and then raised it upon a new one, still unfinished, yet stronger, bedded in New England granite...

"Twenty years after the war, when officials at the War Department began preparing the Official History of the War of the Rebellion, a massive compilation of documents that would eventually grow to more than two hundred thousand pages, the first of all the uncountable documents that they included was Anderson's brisk telegram announcing his arrival at Sumter. Nineteenth-century historians knew that without this event, the war might not have happened...

"When the saga of the Civil War is recounted now, it usually begins four months later, when the Confederate batteries at Charleston finally opened fire... It elevates a moment when war was already a fait accompli, with Americans on both sides simply awaiting the opening guns."

As for Col. Gagarin's venture into space, I remember how little detail about the flight -- or any Soviet flight -- used to be available. That's no longer the case, fortunately. And with the Cold War long over, there's no excuse for neglecting the flight of Vostok 1 as an achievement for all humanity, just as Apollo 11 was.

From the April 12 entry at Astronautix.com, I learned a few things about the flight I didn't know, such as the fact that Gagarin parachuted out before the capsule hit the ground -- which was a secret for years.

"Vostok 1 - Call Sign: Kedr (Cedar). Crew: Gagarin. Backup Crew: Titov; Nelyubov. Payload: Vostok 3KA s/n 3. Mass: 4,725 kg (10,416 lb). Nation: USSR. Apogee: 315 km (195 mi). Perigee: 169 km (105 mi). First manned spaceflight, one orbit of the earth. Three press releases were prepared, one for success, two for failures. It was only known ten minutes after burnout, 25 minutes after launch, if a stable orbit had been achieved.

"The payload included life-support equipment and radio and television to relay information on the condition of the pilot. The flight was automated; Gagarin's controls were locked to prevent him from taking control of the ship. The combination to unlock the controls was available in a sealed envelope in case it became necessary to take control in an emergency.

"After retrofire, the service module remained attached to the Sharik reentry sphere by a wire bundle. The joined craft went through wild gyrations at the beginning of re-entry, before the wires burned through. The Sharik, as it was designed to do, then naturally reached aerodynamic equilibrium with the heat shield positioned correctly.

"Gagarin ejected after re-entry and descended under his own parachute, as was planned. However, for many years the Soviet Union denied this, because the flight would not have been recognized for various FAI world records unless the pilot had accompanied his craft to a landing. Recovered April 12, 1961 8:05 GMT.

"[Gagarin had been] accepted into the cosmonaut unit in 1960, at age 26. After his historic 108-min. flight around the Earth in Vostok 1... he was promoted to unit leader. Seven years later, on March 27, 1968, Gagarin died with a flight instructor in a fighter jet crash."

The footnote anniversary is that of the first space flight of the Space Shuttle, Columbia, with John Young and Bob Crippen on board, on April 12, 1981. I didn't see the launch that day, probably because it was early in the morning, and I was a college student. Two days later, however, I remembering watching the early afternoon landing on a TV fixed to the wall at the VU bookstore. A lot of people were gathered around watching, and a few cheers went up when the craft landed successfully.

Has the Shuttle program been a success? History will have to make that call. In the meantime, here's something to watch. It's hard to believe it's an unofficial NASA PSA.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home