The Makings of History/ Communique From a Cosmonaut

Only in communist Mother Russia could the son of a carpenter and a milkmaid from a kolkhoz take off for the realms of science fiction.

A few weeks after Yuri Gagarin returned from his debut flight to outer space, one of the censor clerks in Israel responsible for postal items faced a tough dilemma. It was 1961; the Cold War was then at its peak, Israeli democracy had yet to decide whether it wanted or was able to exist, and letters that Israeli citizens received from the Soviet Union were scrutinized by the censors before being delivered.

The censor had to decide whether to return to its envelope a black and white photograph signed by Gagarin. The censor withstood the temptation to keep it for himself and conveyed the letter to its destination, me, in Jerusalem.

Gagarin, AP

Like many children, I collected the autographs of "famous people," as celebrities were called back then, but I did not make do with lying in wait at the Knesset entrance to ambush Moshe Sharett (who always consented gladly ) or Moshe Dayan (who generally did not, and when he did, it was only with a sour face ). I also used to send requests to notable figures in the wide world, and was usually granted a response. I have the signed photograph of Gagarin to this day. Almost 50 years had gone by since I held it in my hand.

This week I pulled it out excitedly and found myself slightly disappointed: The exact same photograph, with a signature emblazoned in the exact same place, is displayed on Gagarin's Web site. I guess I wasn't the only kid in the world who got a picture like that.

Gagarin was admired the world over: He turned 27 about two weeks before he became the first person to blast into space; he came across as a daredevil who fulfilled humanity's dream of conquering the universe.

He was a handsome and personable man, a father of two adorable daughters. His mission did not end with the 108 minutes he spent in space, rather it was just the beginning: The U.S.S.R. dispatched him all over the world as proof of the Soviets' moral, social and scientific superiority. Only in communist Mother Russia could the son of a carpenter and a milkmaid from a kolkhoz take off for the realms of science fiction, they boasted.

Back then there were still many socialists in Israel who were sympathetic toward the Soviet Union; it represented the pined-for "world of tomorrow." Red Army songs were considered pioneering Israeli songs.

In the early 1960s it was no longer necessary to worship Stalin: Nikita Khrushchev knew how to camouflage the horrors of his dictatorship behind the colorfulness of his roly-poly personality. So it was also easy to adore Gagarin, while overlooking the horrors of the regime that glorified his flight. He was one of the first heroes of the revolutionary '60s.

In an era when every kid knows how to beam data from satellites to smartphones, Gagarin's heroics seem like a chapter out of antiquity; 1961 was closer to the days of Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, than to today.

The space race between the Soviet Union and the United States was anchored in the Cold War, just as were the Internet's beginnings. This week Google displayed a special logo on its homepage in Gagarin's honor.

The space race would probably have been more of a saunter had it not been for the Cold War, and it would probably have been less wasteful to boot. The billions invested in it could have improved the quality of life everywhere on the planet, and it is possible that someday, when human colonies arise on Mars, the wastefulness that accompanied the landing on the moon will not even merit a footnote.

Gagarin was killed a little over a year before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The Internet, as is its wont, offers countless conspiracy theories all seeking to disprove the moon landing. Gagarin's death also gave rise to tales of dastardly deeds and hush-ups in cyberspace.

On March 27, 1968, Gagarin took part in a MiG-15 training flight. The plane crashed, killing him and another pilot. His body was cremated and his ashes were buried in the walls of the Kremlin.

Was it his fault or his copilot's? Was he drunk? Did he commit suicide? Was he murdered? Maybe someone messed up in the maintenance of the aircraft, and it is possible of course that he was punished by heaven for flying too high, as Adam and Eve were punished for partaking of the Tree of Knowledge. There is something poetic in the untimely death of the man who set out for the first time to discover the secrets of the universe, that he left such a mystery for us on Earth below.