On this day in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty entered into force, becoming the first effort to establish universal principles and guidelines for activities in outer space. It was created under the auspices of the United Nations based on proposals by the world’s two principal space powers, the United States and Soviet Union.
Naturally, I took the opportunity to improve the Wikipedia article about it, which deserves greater justice (See the before and after photos below.)
It may not be a household name — then again, few treaties are —but the Outer Space Treaty remains one of the most relevant texts in international law today. It is the foundational framework for what we now know as space law, a legal field that is more relevant than ever now that dozens of countries and companies are actively involved in space activities.
The Outer Space Treaty forms the basis of ambitious projects such as the International Space Station (the biggest scientific endeavor in history) and the Artemis Program, a U.S.-led international coalition to return humans to the Moon and to ultimately launch crewed missions to Mars and beyond.
The main crux of the Outer Space Treaty is preventing the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space; broader principles include allowing all nations to freely explore space; limiting space activities to peaceful purposes; preventing any one nation from claiming territory in space; and fostering goodwill and cooperation in space exploration (such as rescuing one another’s astronauts or preventing our space probes from damaging others).
I know, I know, it is all quite idealistic. But all things considered, the treaty has held up fairly well: Most of the world’s countries, including all the major space powers, have ratified it and abided by its terms (after all, it is in everyone’s self-interest to keep everyone else from putting nukes in space). Naturally, some provisions were written vaguely enough to allow some workarounds — for example, space forces are still allowed so long as they are not armed with WMDs and belligerent.
The Outer Space Treaty is influential enough to still be referenced by the major space programs, and has enough legitimacy that every government feels the need to at least pay lip service to its terms. Whether this holds up in an ever-intensifying rivalry among both countries and companies is a different story — but it is certainly better than nothing.
Initially hopeful that the French Revolution would usher equality between men and women, Gouges became disenchanted upon discovering that the key revolutionary tenant of egalite would not be extended to women. In 1791, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—an otherwise seminal work in human rights— she wrote a counter-declaration that proposed full legal, social, and political equality between men and women. She also published her treatise, Social Contract, named after the famous work of Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, calling for marriage based upon gender equality.
Even before the revolution, Gouges was well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally. She dared write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied full participation in the public and political space. After releasing a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and being involved in the male profession of theatre in the first place. Gouges remained defiant: “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, threats and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.
…Gouges took on her mother’s middle name, changed the spelling of her father’s and added the aristocratic “de.” Adding to this already audacious gesture, the name “Gouges” may also have been a sly and provocative joke. The word “gouge” in Occitan was an offensive slang term used to refer to lowly, bawdy women.
Unsurprisingly, once the French Revolution came into full swing, Gouges wasted no time in seizing the moment. Aside from her already-bold feminist views, she rigorously supported a wage of policies and rights that proved radical even for the revolution:
She produced numerous broadsides and pamphlets between 1789 and 1792 that called for, among other things, houses of refuge for women and children at risk; a tax to fund workshops for the unemployed; the legitimation of children born out of wedlock; inheritance equality; the legalization and regulation of prostitution; the legalization of divorce; clean streets; a national theater and the opening of professions to everyone regardless of race, class or gender. She also began to sign her letters “citoyenne,” the feminine version of the conventional revolutionary honorific “citoyen.”
Gouges’ opposition to the revolution’s growing and bloody radicalism, and support for a constitutional monarchy, put a target on her back. Above all she openly disliked, Maximillian Robespierre, in effect the most powerful man in the country, going so far as to use the informal tu when referring to him in an open letter. This proved the last straw; she was tried, convicted, and executed for treason as one of only three women to be executed during the Reign of Terror, and the only one executed for her politics.
Nonetheless, Gouges’ legacy lived on for decades, influencing women’s rights movements across Europe and North America: the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York—the first convention dedicated to women’s rights—based its “Declaration of Sentiments” on her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman”.
On this day in 1786, the newly minted United States faced its greatest domestic challenge when Daniel Shays led an armed uprising in western Massachusetts against the federal government known as “Shays’ Rebellion“.
Shays was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War who saw combat in several major battles and was wounded in action. Like most people in the fledgling country of roughly three million, he was a subsistence farmer just scrapping by; most residents of rural Massachusetts had few assets beyond their land, and often had to rely on bartering or debt from urban merchants.
Like most revolts, there were many complex ideological, political, and economic factors that drove Shays and four thousand others to take arms against their purportedly representative government. The majority of veterans received little pay for their service, and still had difficult getting the government to pay up. Compounding this problem were mounting debts to city businessmen and higher taxes by the state government, which happened to be dominated by the same mercantile class. Mounting bankruptcies and repossessions, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the democratic process in addressing these issues, finally boiled over to well organized efforts to shut down the courts and prevent more “unjust” rulings. Over time, the protests morphed into an outright insurrection that sought the overthrow of the Massachusetts government. Things really came to a head in 1787, when Shays’ rebels marched on the federal Springfield Armory in an unsuccessful attempt to seize its weaponry for their cause. The national government, then governed by the Articles of Confederation, did not have the power nor ability to finance troops to put down the rebellion; it came down to the Massachusetts State militia and even privately funded local militia to put an end to the rebellion, at the loss of nine lives in total.
Most participants were ultimately pardoned, including Shays himself, who ultimately died poor and obscure in 1825. But the legacy of the conflict far outlived its relative blip in modern history: Though it is still widely debated, the rebellion may have influenced the already-growing calls for the weak Confederation to be replaced by a federal system under a new constitution. Among other things, the event is credited with creating a relatively more powerful executive branch, as it was believed one single president would have a better chance at acting decisively against national threats. Some delegates felt that the uprising proved the masses could not be trusted; the proposed Senate was already designed to be indirectly elected (as it would remain until the early 20th century), but some wanted even the House of Representatives to be removed from the popular vote. Regardless of its effects, if any, on the course of our constitutional and political development, the causes, sentiments, and public debates around Shays’ Rebellion (and the response to it) are no doubt familiar to many of us today; depending on how you look at it, that is either reassuring (things are not so uniquely bad after all) or depressing (things are *still* pretty bad over two centuries later).
Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).
The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, and on the other French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy—the two forces portrayed as equal combatants. Trumbull’s decision to show French and Americans as identical victors reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic was birthed with the help of one of its oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than Great Britain’s!)
Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans; one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French. Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace. Even this already-critical contribution is just one example of decisive French aid.
Well before the Declaration of Independence, the Founders actively sought an alliance with France: While the French monarchy was everything the revolution stood against—heck, it was more authoritarian than even Britain’s—the Patriots were pragmatic enough to recognize that only the French had both the motive and means to take on the British, to whom they lost all their North American colonies just a decade before, in the Seven Years’ War (to say nothing of centuries of rivalry and mutual enmity).Indeed, France’s foreign minister urged the king to support the Americans, arguing that “[destiny] had marked out this moment for the humiliation of England.”
Hence why the Founders pursued a two-year diplomatic mission, led by noted Francophile Benjamin Franklin, to court the French for as much aid and support as possible.
The alliance was not merely opportunistic: Most of the Founders were avid consumers of French political philosophy, which promoted ideals of individual liberty and political representation. As far back as the 1760s, it was trendy for Americans to favor France over their English overlords; as one historian notes, “It became almost a patriotic duty for colonists to admire France as a counterpoise to an increasingly hostile England”. France’s powerful monarchy helped spur many French thinkers to explore better political alternatives—and in the process, inspire Americans across the Atlantic.
Patrick Henry’s famous exhortation, “Give me freedom or give me death!”, which convinced the colonists to prepare for war, echoed French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opened his influential 1762 work, The Social Contract, with the words “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Rousseau’s core argument—predating the American Revolution by over a decade—is familiar to us now: Sovereignty rested not in a monarch, but in the people, with laws needing to reflect the common good, not the whims of an aristocratic elite. These ideals were channeled by Thomas Jefferson—another avid reader and noted Francophile—in the language of the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution may have drawn from the even older work of Baron de Montesquieu, who forty years before published “The Spirit of the Laws”, which laid out many familiar principles: That the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be separated, so that each branch can keep the other in check; that laws should ensure a fair trial, presumption of innocence and proportional punishments; and that people had the freedom of thought, speech and assembly (he also argued against slavery, though sadly that did not take root until much later).
In any event, the admiration was mutual: Many French, including those who directly aided and fought in the American Revolution, were reeling under the monarchy and sought change; many of the political philosophers beloved by the Founders, including Rousseau and Montesquieu, faced persecution and even exile for their writings. To many in France, the nascent American republic signified their ideals made real, an experiment they wanted to succeed so it could perhaps be a model to their own efforts. (It is no coincidence that the French Revolution—which was bolder but bloodier than our own—would occur less than two decades after America’s.)
But as important as the ideological support was the practical kind. Even the most noble efforts require money to succeed, and France—then one of the world’s wealthiest countries—provided open-ended credit to the tune of billions of dollars. American troops, who initially lacked even basic goods like boots and winter jackers, received those supplies and more: By some measures, 90% of American gunpowder was of French origin, as were a similar proportion of U.S. armaments at Yorktown.
The Comte de Rochambeau, who is pictured as Washington’s equal in the Surrender of Yorktown, led the French Expeditionary Force that helped secure American victory—and which remains the only foreign allied force ever to campaign on American soil. Other brilliant Frenchmen like the Marquis de Lafayette, Louis Duportail, and Pierre L’Enfant played leading roles in the war and were personal friends and aides to George Washington (L’Enfant even helped design the nation’s capital). Tens of thousands more French served as soldiers and sailors, with the latter making up the bulk of our naval force.
Beyond the military dimension, France’s diplomatic heft could not be understated: As the first country to recognize American independence, it provided considerable legitimacy to the Patriot’s cause; if one of the most powerful countries in the world saw something in these upstart Americans, why shouldn’t other nations? Sure enough, France managed to get other powers like Spain and the Dutch Republic to throw in their lot with the Americans—turning what could have been just another self-contained rebellion into a full-fledged world war that stretched British forces thin. France even helped broker the peace deal that finally secured British recognition of U.S. independence—the “Treaty of Paris”—after refusing Britain’s offer of a separate peace deal without the Americans (a pretty solid ally indeed).
Yesterday was an even more devastating anniversary than the bar exam.
On July 28, 1914—exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—Austria declared war on Serbia and the First World War began. Despite directly setting off the war, both nations would soon be overshadowed by the much bigger players they dragged with them: France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K.
After putting up stiff resistance for the first year, Serbia was conquered by the end of 1915 and occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces until the war’s end in 1918. Over 1.1 million Serbs died, including one out of four troops, up to a quarter of the population and 60 percent of men; proportionally, Serbia suffered more losses than any other country involved (the Ottoman Empire ranks second in this regard, losing 13-15 percent of people, followed by Romania at 7-9 percent).
For its part, the weak and declining Austro-Hungarian Empire lost over 2 million people, of whom 120,000 were civilians, amounting to about 4 percent of its total population. Having exhausted itself in its pyrrhic victory against Serbia, the country barely kept it together throughout the conflict, remaining a peripheral power dependent on German support; indeed, Austria-Hungary would ultimately collapse into several new countries, some of which would join Serbia to form a new multiethnic state called Yugoslavia.
All told, some 8 million fighting men were killed by combat and disease, and 21 million more were wounded. As many as 13 million civilians died as a result of starvation, exposure, disease, military action, and massacres. Four great empires and dynasties—the Hohenzollern, the Habsburg, the Romanov, and the Ottoman—fell, and the intercontinental movement of troops helped fuel the deadliest influenza pandemic in history. The ripple effects of the war, from the Great Depression, to World War II, to the Cold War, continue to be felt today. The war helped usher in the Russian Revolution, and ultimately the Soviet Union, the first major communist government (which ironically would play the pivotal role in helping end the second iteration of the war).
Better known are the grievances engendered by the post-war Versailles Treaty, which helped fuel the desperation and misery that became the Nazi’s stock and trade. Even Japan saw its star rise further as a major world power, belatedly joining the Allies and getting a seat at the table as one of the leaders of the post-war League of Nations (no small feat for a non-European country).
In Casualties of History, John Arquilla describes the almost morbidly comical arrogance and stupidity of this meat grinder of a conflict:
“Yes, a second and even more destructive conflict followed all too soon after the “war to end all wars”, impelling a name change from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. And the rest of the 20th century was littered with insurgencies, terrorism, and a host of other violent ills — most of which persist today, guaranteeing the steady production of new veterans, of which there are 22 million in the United States.
But despite the seemingly endless parade of wars waged and fresh conflicts looming just beyond the bloody horizon, World War I still stands out for its sheer horror. Over ten million soldiers died, and more than twice that number were wounded. This is a terrible enough toll. But what makes these casualties stand out even more is their proportion of the total numbers of troops mobilized.
For example, France put about 7.5 million soldiers in the field; one in five died, and three out of four who lived were wounded. All other major combatants on both sides suffered horribly: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s 6.5 million soldiers had a combined casualty rate of 74 percent. For Britain and Russia, the comparable figures totaled a bit over 50 percent, with German and Turkish losses slightly below one-half of all who served. The United States entered the conflict late, and so the overall casualty rate for the 4.3 million mobilized was “just” 8 percent. Even so, it is more than double the percentage of killed and wounded from the Iraq War, where total American casualties amounted to less than 4 percent of the one million who served.
Few conflicts in all of military history have seen victors and vanquished alike suffer such shocking losses as were incurred in World War I, so it is worth taking time to remember how this hecatomb came to pass. A great body of evidence suggests that this disaster was a product of poor generalship. Historian Alan Clark’s magisterial “The Donkeys” conveys a sense of the incredible stubbornness of high commanders who continued, for years, to hurl massed waves of infantry against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. All this went on while senior generals stayed far from the front. A British field commander, who went riding daily, even had soldiers spread sand along the country lane he followed, to make sure his horse didn’t slip.
It is little wonder that in the face of Nazi aggression barely a generation later, most of Europe melted away and succumbed to occupation within a year. Most nations did not have the political or public will to endure yet another meat grinder of a conflict; indeed, the major powers could not imagine that anyone would actually want another war given all the bloodletting that went around. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the First World War was the fact that even all that death and destruction failed to stem the hatred, cruelty, and aggression of monstrous men and their millions of supporters and collaborators; in fact, the shortsightedness and vindictiveness of postwar leaders—as had already been evidenced by their callous ineptitude on the battlefield—all but ensured that desperation and humiliation would give the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and their minions plenty of currency to start an even bloodier.
Thanks goodness that, for now, that has not played out again all these decades later.
Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day—which is celebrated September 16—and is not even an official or major holiday there.
It actually originates in the United States—most likely among Mexicans communities in 1860s California—and is more popular here than anywhere else in the world. Not unlike St. Patrick’s Day—which also took off mostly due to Irish immigrants in America—Cinco de Mayo has become both an opportunity to drink and party, and a testament to the widespread appeal of Mexican cuisine, music, art, and culture generally.
In fact, there are now major celebrations in places as distinct as Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Nigeria, and South Africa. As a reflection of the holiday’s U.S. roots, many foreign celebrations often invoke American or Mexican American culture specifically.
Nevertheless, Cinco de Mayo does have a major connection to Mexico itself, as the anniversary of the country’s shocking defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
Mexico had just emerged from a three-year civil war known as the Reform War, which was triggered in part by the passage of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions; it had enshrined freedoms of speech, conscience, the press, and assembly, and even the right to bear arms. It also reaffirmed the abolition of slavery—which Mexico was one of the first countries to ban, back in 1824—and of debtor prison, cruel and unusual punishment, and the death penalty.
The pro-constitution faction, known as the “Liberals”, ultimately won against the “Conservatives”, who had opposed the subsequent weakening of the church, army, and landed elite. Led by Beninto Juarez (pictured on the right)—a poor orphan who was Mexico’s first indigenous leader—a battered Mexico had become heavily indebted to foreign nations namely France, Spain, and Great Britain. After declaring a pause on loan payments for two years, the European powers sent naval forces to pressure reimbursement; while Juarez was able to reach a settlement with the British and Spanish, France used the opportunity to take over the country and declare a new Mexican Empire under its control.
The entire enterprise was really designed to fulfill the imperial ambitions of French Emperor Napoleon III, the nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte, who envisioned creating a massive “Latin” empire across the Western Hemisphere. The defeated Conservatives, many of whom were monarchists and nobility, collaborated for their own benefit, giving the French another edge. To top it all off, France was one of the preeminent powers of the time—and at one point had the backing of the U.K., Austria, and Spain—so the fact that Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory became a cause for celebration.
Mexican forces at Pueblo, as elsewhere, were under-equipped and outnumbered, in this case by two to one. But under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín—who resigned as Mexico’s secretary of war just to lead the army—they surprised the world with their superior tactics, inflicting the first major defeat of a French army in fifty years.
As explained in the Washington Post, the Mexicans made the most of their homefield advantage in an era where armies were just figuring out how to use guns en masse?:
A young Mexican general, Ignacio Zaragoza, placed a small, tough force at Puebla and scoured the countryside for volunteers to bolster the defense. A long trench was added to the city’s existing fortifications. Some 4,500 men occupied this position on May 5, when 6,000 French troops under Major General Charles de Lorencez came up the valley.
The overconfident French nobleman ordered an immediate attack. Zaragoza’s riflemen found easy targets as de Lorencez’s soldiers charged the trenches. Those Frenchmen who survived the climb met savage hand-to-hand fighting at the Mexican trenches.
A second charge also failed. As Union and Confederate generals would soon learn on battlefields from Corinth, Miss., to Gettysburg, a ferocious foe in an entrenched position had a tremendous advantage. The bloody field filled with French bodies.
When a third charge also failed, Zaragoza unleashed his cavalry on both flanks of the retreating French. The battle became a rout, and de Lorencez fell back all the way to Veracruz, where he counted his losses (as many as 500 killed and wounded) and waited to be reinforced from back home.
Unfortunately for Mexico, it would be a short-lived, if still impressive, victor.y Zaragoza died of typhoid fever shortly after his victory, and the loss of such a brilliant young general helped pave the way for France to ultimately win the war and install an “emperor” beholden to their interests (and related to Napoleon III). But Mexican liberals and republicans, still led by Juarez, continued the fight against this imposed monarchy through guerilla warfare and resistance. They garnered enough popular support at home and abroad (including from the U.S.) to prevail against French forces and secure their independence in 1867.
Though they lost initial war, Mexicans had won the larger conflict, and remained proud that they were able to hold their own and eventually win their freedom. Hence the battle is still a point of pride for the small town of Pueblo—the only place that probably celebrates it as enthusiastically as Americans—and an ideal basis for a holiday celebrating Mexican culture.
But the U.S. connection does not end there; as some historians argue, the Mexican victory—which the embattled Americans had a vested interest in—may have changed the course of U.S. and world history:
The United States likely benefited more from the battle than did Mexico: the French were so occupied with Mexico that they were not able to significantly fund or assist the Confederacy during our own Civil War, despite the best of intentions. The Union, of course, was funded through a series of government taxes, including the Internal Revenue Act of 1862, the precursor to our modern tax system. Since the French were sympathetic to the Confederacy, had the French easily taken Puebla in 1862, freeing up military and other resources, the entire course of history might have been changed.
A similar take from the same WaPo article at the top:
Had a triumphant French army been raising the flag in Mexico City that summer, it might have made all the difference. The wavering Napoleon might have been emboldened to recognize the Confederacy, pulling the British along with him. Instead, the French army was licking its wounds, mangled by a smaller force of Mexican irregulars, and the emperor was momentarily chastened. Though France managed to topple the Mexican government the following year, its brief reign there came too late to help the South. The North had regained its momentum, and Lincoln was on his way to saving the Union.
Of course, such “what-ifs” are, by definition, difficult to put much stock in. But these events, like Cinco de Mayo itself, speak to just how intertwined our nations, cultures, communities, and histories are. For all the tumult and conflict—the Mexican-American War and our annexation of half of Mexico; hostilities centered on the Southern Border and immigration; and now “cultural anxiety” about the large Mexican/Hispanic communities generally—the two societies, for better or worse, share a mutual love for one another that transcends these things.
Mexico is America’s second largest trading partner after Canada—third if you count the EU as a country—while America is Mexico’s top trading partner. Mexico is one of the top destinations for American travelers, as well as retirees; more Americans live there than anywhere outside the country (about 1.5 million). For its part, America has the largest Mexican community outside Mexico, at nearly 50 million; they make up over 11% of all Americans, more than half of all Latins, and a quarter of all foreign-born people. But the vast majority (71%) were born in the U.S., and most live in the American Southwest—which was formerly Mexican territory.
And as trite as it may seem, the mainstream appeal of Cinco de Mayo—and of Mexican culture generally—as well as the fact that most of the world seems to view it as a Mexican-American fusion, is just another example of the indelible connections between our nations.
Across different times, cultures, and places, food has always been a unifier. This is especially salient in space, where the tough environment and complete detachment from Earth makes a good meal both comforting and psychologically affirming.
Some endearing examples: pictured below are American astronauts holding what appear to be tubes of Russian vodka given to them by Russian cosmonauts in a gesture of goodwill. This followed the famous “handshake in space” of 1975, when the two political and scientific rivals docked one another’s flagship space vessels in an unlikely display of cooperation and mutual respect (notwithstanding continued rivalry in and out space). The “vodka” was actually Russian borscht, a sour but hearty beet soup.
Flashforward to this photo of a typical dinner night aboard the International Space Station, which by some measures is the largest and most expensive scientific project in history. Not much has changed otherwise.
Once again, the U.S. and Russia have come together in space exploration, despite their very real political differences, this time joined by Japan, Canada, and over eleven European nations. This makes the creature comforts of space all the more enjoyable, as Smithsonian Magazine notes:
One big perk of international cooperation on the station is the advancement of the space food frontier. Astronauts and cosmonauts regularly gather on both sides of the station to share meals and barter food items. Roscosmos’ contribution to the food rations is the unique assortment of canned delicacies from traditional Russian cuisine. Perlovka (pearl barley porridge) and tushonka (meat stew), dishes familiar to the Russian military veterans since World War II, found new popularity among the residents of the station. Cosmonaut Aleksandr Samokutyaev says his American counterparts were big fans of Russian cottage cheese.
The cosmonauts, meanwhile, have few complaints about sharing meals with a country that flies up real frozen ice cream (not the freeze-dried stuff made for gift shops), as the U.S. did in 2012. Ryazansky has also spoken fondly of the great variety of American pastries. “We should say,” he clarified, “our food is better than the Americans’…. Despite the variety, everything is already spiced. But in ours, if you wish you can make it spicy; if you want, you can make it sour. American rations have great desserts and veggies; however, they lack fish. Our Russian food has great fish dishes.” The cosmonauts’ cuisine benefits when European and Japanese crew arrive. Both agencies brought unique flavors from their culinary heritages—including the one thing the cosmonauts really wanted. “Japanese rations have great fish,” Ryazansky wrote.
Every new cargo ship comes with fresh produce, filling the stale air on the station with the aroma of apples and oranges. Deprived of strong flavors in their packaged food, cosmonauts often craved the most traditional Russian condiment: fresh garlic. Mission control took the request seriously. “They sent us so much that even if you eat one for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we still had plenty left to oil ourselves all over our bodies for a nice sleep,” Suraev joked on his blog.
There’s something endearing and downright adorable about astronauts — perhaps the world’s toughest and gruffest folks, one would think — excitedly exchanging meals with one another like kids trading candy on the playground. It almost makes you forget all the petty and vicious squabbles back on Earth. (As I understand it, scientists, space explorers, and visionaries of these nations tend to operate on a different level than their politicians.)
I was so busy reeling from the results of my cursed Bar Exam that I forgot April 12 was also a much happier occasion: International Day of Human Space Flight, which commemorates the 1961 flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first man to enter outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. He spent 108 minutes aboard the Vostok 1, which was basically one big cannonball with rudimentary, if resourceful, technology.
Gagarin subsequently became the most visible and iconic Russian in the world, a far cry from dour and disreputable figures that were more familiar to outsiders. His natural charm and friendliness—both personally and in every media spotlight—earned him the moniker “the Smiling Soviet“, as it contradicted the popular image of Russians as gruff and sullen.
How does one become the first human in space, especially as the son of peasants in a country as seemingly blighted as Soviet Russia? After personally enduring the grief and hardship of the Second World War—including having his home occupied by a German officer, and serving in the resistance—Gagarin returned to normal life; he loved math and science in school, and was fascinated with planes, building model aircraft and eventually a local flying club. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Soviet Air Force, where his confidence and knack for flying were matched only by his astute technical knowledge; as a youth, he worked in a steel factory and later went to vocational school, learning about industrial work and tractors.
As the Soviet space program went into high gear in the 1960s, Gagarin and other talented pilots were being screened for their fitness and aptitude as “cosmonauts”—something no one had ever been before. (There was only so much we could know about the effect of space travel on a human.)
When it came down to him and 19 other candidates, an Air Force doctor made the following evaluation of him:
Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.
Gagarin was also heavily favored by his peers—even those otherwise competing with him for the glory of first man in space. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose him
Another favorable factor was, of all things, his short stature (at least partly a product of his rough and impoverished childhood). At just 5’2″, Gagarin could easily fit in the small, rudimentary cockpit of the Vostok 1. (Being the first into space is scary enough—imagine in something that cramped.)
As Valentina Malmy wrote beautifully in the book Star Peace:
He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin. To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension.
I can’t wrap my head around being the first person to venture into something as unknown and terrifying as space—to be able put your thumb up in front of you and our big planet as small as your fingernail.
Little wonder why Gagarin became such a worldwide celebrity, touring dozens of countries in the years following his fateful flight. The geopolitical implications melted away in the face of this impressive feat, and the man’s genuine charm and affability—this was something all humankind could celebrate.
Of course, this was still the Cold War: As a living symbol of Soviet triumph, Gagarin could not be risked on another spaceflight, given their inherent danger even today, let alone fifty years ago. Ironically, he died unexpectedly just a few years later during a routine training flight, an event subject to much secrecy and rumor (one conspiracy theory is that newly installed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered his death due to being overshadowed by the gregarious cosmonaut at public events).
For his part, the “Smiling Soviet” seemed above such politics, notwithstanding his (likely symbolic) stint as a member of the Soviet legislature. As to be expected, being the first man in space really changes you and puts things in perspective; you’re literally looking down on everything you, and all your fellow humans, have ever known. I wonder if it was surreal or even lonely being the only person with that sort of view.
Despite being banned from the U.S. by the Kennedy Administration—perhaps because his popularity among average Americans undermined the competitive spirit of the Space Race—Gagarin was honored by the Apollo 11 crew (ironically the same mission that ended the race in America’s favor). Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial on the surface of the moon commemorating him and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to venture into Outer Space, and the first to die there. (Another memorial was left by Apollo 15 in 1971 to commemorate the Americans and Russians who died in space.)
Though untimely and cruelly ironic—an expert pilot dying from a routine flight rather than the first space mission—Gagarin is survived by one hell of a legacy: The almost banal regularity of human spaceflight in the 21st century is a testament to his courageous and spirited embrace of the ultimate unknown.
I know I’m quite a bit late to the party (though I definitely indulged in all the glorious memes), but I think any time is a good time to learn about the otherwise overlooked bit of our global infrastructure that suddenly became a global phenomenon.
On this day in 1930, German-American bank robber Herman “The Baron” Lamm— the so-called “father of modern bank robbery”—committed suicide when he was cornered by over 200 cops and armed citizens in Sidell, Illinois, following a botched heist.
Formerly a soldier in the Prussian Army—considered one of the finest military forces in history—Lamm immigrated to the United States following expulsion from his regiment after getting caught cheating with cards. Lamm applied his stellar military training to his crimes: He believed a heist required all the planning of a military operation. With his meticulous planning system, known as the “Lamm Technique”, he pioneered the concepts of “casing” a bank and strategizing escape routes before conducting the robbery. At the time, bank robberies were almost always improvised and thus largely a matter of luck.
Not so for Lamm. He developed a system involving carefully studying a target bank for many hours before the robbery, developing a detailed floor plan, noting the location of safes, taking meticulous notes and establishing escape routes. Sometimes he had an accomplice pose as a journalist to better understand the inner workings of the bank. Lamm assigned each gang member a specific job, along with a specific zone of the bank they were charged with surveying and a strict timetable to complete their stage of the robbery. He also assigned positions of lookout, getaway driver, lobby man and vault man—all of which are a given today. He also put his men through a series of rehearsals, some of which involved using a full-scale mock-up of the interior of the bank. Lamm stressed the importance of timing during these practice runs and used stopwatches to ensure the proper results were achieved. He only allowed his gang members to stay in a bank for a specific period of time, regardless of how much money they could steal.
As a result of this uniquely methodical approach, Lamm and his gang executed dozens of successful bank robberies between 1918 and 1930. But luck ran out after a robbery in Clinton, Indiana, when his getaway driver got spooked by an armed civilian approaching the vehicle (many towns had formed vigilante or citizen militias in response to the spate of bank robberies in the area). A series of misfortunes—including two different hijacked cars not working well—led to him being cornered in Sidell, which prompted his suicide over getting captured (which would have resulted in a life sentence).
Lamm’s legacy has lived on to this day. Considered one of the best bank robberies to ever live, his techniques were studied and imitated by other bank robbers across the country, including the more famous John Dillinger.