Monday, April 12, 2010

Yuri Gagarin and the Face of God

If you think science, religion and politics are a volatile mix in the United States, imagine what that combination must have been like in a state that was as steadfastly secular as the Soviet Union. Consider this story Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov once recounted about his friend Yuri Gagarin, whose Vostok 1 mission made him the first human to fly into space and orbit the Earth -- 49 years ago today:

"Shortly after Yuri Gagarin returned from his first spaceflight a reception was held in his honor, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexis I, was present. 'When you were in space,' he asked Yuri, 'did you see God?' Yuri said he had not. 'Please, my son,' Alexis replied, 'keep that to yourself.' A little later Nikita Khrushchev posed the same question. Out of respect for Alexis I, this time Yuri said he had. 'Dear Yuri,' Khrushchev entreated, 'please don't say a word about that to anyone.'"

(From "Two Sides of the Moon" -- a 2004 Moon race memoir Leonov wrote jointly with U.S. Astronaut David Scott. Photo from the Russian Institute of Radionavigation via Wikimedia Commons.)

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