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October 23, 2011

Chicago's Adler Planetarium Honors Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin

by Kane Farabaugh

Chicago’s Adler Planetarium was the first one built in the United States, in 1930.  Since it opened, it has helped visitors understand the marvels of astronomy.  It has mounted celebratory exhibits about historic U.S. accomplishments in space, spotlighting the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo NASA missions and their astronauts.  But, as the museum prepares for a major expansion, it is also celebrating the accomplishments of other nations' space-faring achievements, overlooked during the Cold War.

Though it was almost 50 years ago, cosmonaut Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu remembers April 12, 1961 well.  He was eight years old at the time, living in the Romanian city of Brasov.

“I was in the house together with my sister and mother listening to the radio, and the radio stopped and very important news was translated about the flight of the first human into outer space,” he said.

That human was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  His voyage into space was a monumental achievement, celebrated throughout the Soviet Union.

“Yuri Gagarin showed us how to break frontiers, the frontier of the atmosphere,” Prunariu said.

Twenty years later, in May 1981, Prunariu himself blasted into space on a Soviet-built Soyuz rocket.  He was Romania’s first and still only cosmonaut.  Prunariu credits Gagarin with charting his own path into space.

“Yuri Gagarin’s a symbol, and we celebrate this symbol of the possibility of a human being to fly above the atmosphere of the Earth,” he said.

“We seem to forget that Gagarin’s flight in 1961 was so important,” said James Andrews, Professor of Russian History at Iowa State University.  He says Gagarin’s accomplishment, just over three years after the Soviets launched the first satellite - Sputnik - into space, was greeted with shock in the United States.  It was later overshadowed by dramatic U.S. strides in space exploration.  

“There was this monumental event that happened after Sputnik and I think we need to remember how important that was and how heroic,” Andrews said.

“We really haven’t broadened the view to look at what other nations, particularly the Soviet Union, were doing at the time," said Adler Planetarium President Paul Knappenberger.  "But that’s something we’re working on now.”

At a ceremony in Chicago, Knappenberger was joined by Cosmonaut Prunariu as the Adler Planetarium's first recognition of Yuri Gagarin’s triumph was unveiled.

A bust of Gagarin, donated by the city of Moscow to the city of Chicago, honors the Russian cosmonaut and first human in space 50 years after his accomplishment.  It will have a permanent home next to exhibits that - up until now - have mostly honored American achievements in space.

Knappenberger says it is a sign of things to come.

“We’re planning to expand the Adler in the near future with a new building adjacent to this one that will have a space exploration theme where we will celebrate not only the past accomplishments of the Soviet Union and America but also what’s going on right now on the international scene and with the private sector getting involved in space exploration,” he said.

Cosmonaut Prunariu, who is now the chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space, says honoring both past Soviet and American accomplishments helps chart a future path to the stars.

“This is not the last frontier.  Other frontiers will be Mars, will be the solar system, will be other planetary systems," he said. "And for sure, we have to promote the idea that progress is promoted through such human adventures.”

The Adler Planetarium was not selected to receive one of the newly retired NASA space shuttles.  It will receive the astronaut space flight simulator currently located at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  It will be a centerpiece exhibit of the $40 million expansion effort to turn the Adler Planetarium into Chicago’s Space Science Center.