MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
OK. When the space shuttle Atlantis returns to Earth on July 21st, the shuttle program will end. Retired NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao explained what that will mean on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALL THINGS CONSIDERED)
LARRY CHIAO: After this mission, we will no longer have the ability to send American astronauts into space ourselves. And arguably, we will no longer be the leaders in human space flight until we get that capability back.
LOUISE KELLY: Arguably, the leaders in space flight will, for now, be Russia. American astronauts will rely solely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach orbit. After the Cold War rivalry between the Americans and the Soviet Union, this might seem like a time for Russians to feel pride. NPR's David Greene says not all Russians see it that way.
DAVID GREENE: Who better than Walter Cronkite to capture those important moments?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
WALTER CRONKITE: April 12th, 1961, five days before the Bay of Pigs, American prestige was jolted as the world heard the quickened pulse of Vostok 1 orbiting the Earth. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
GREENE: Gagarin got a hero's welcome in Red Square. He had given the Soviets the lead in the space race.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Five decades later, I went to Yuri Gagarin Square in south Moscow to see the towering Yuri Gagarin statue.
YURI KARASH: People call it the penguin, because if you look at it, it looks like a penguin, you know.
GREENE: He's holding his arms stretched out like wings or something.
KARASH: Yes, exactly. Well, allegedly like wings.
GREENE: My guide was Yuri Karash, who's studied and written about Russian space policy for years. He remembers how Gagarin's adventure gave citizens this feeling that all their sacrifice for the state was worth it.
KARASH: America could not do it, OK? Western Europe could not do it. No other country in the world could do it. But the Soviet state could.
GREENE: Karash captures the sentiment this way: What if a Mercedes broke down in the desert? The driver would find another reliable ride until he got his hands on a new Mercedes.
KARASH: So you suddenly see a Bedouin riding a camel on the shoulder and you ask him, Hey, guy, do me a favor, give me a lift to someplace. And he says, No problem. Pay me $63 million and I will take you there. Does it mean the camel is better than Mercedes?
GREENE: And if you walk just a few footsteps away from the statue of Yuri Gagarin you come to this little mall that's full of vendors who sell - I'm looking at carpets and hardware. The people who work in this mall walk past the statue of that Soviet space hero coming to work every single day.
IGOR MALASHKEVICH: My name is Igor. And I sell tools here in Gagarin Square.
GREENE: For 38-year-old Igor Malashkevich, the glory embodied in that statue has faded. On the world stage today, he feels like Russia's weaker than in Soviet times. He said his country needs more respect from the U.S. Maybe, he said, carrying Americans to space is Russia's opportunity.
MALASHKEVICH: (Through translator) I don't think there is something we can be proud of about it, because we are dependent on the States in many other ways and many respects.
GREENE: This kind of talk is not uncommon in Russia today. After feeling technologically superior in Soviet times, today some Russians feel their military is in disrepair; scientists are cash-strapped, and the space program has fallen behind.
VERA KUZNETSOVA: (Russian language spoken)
GREENE: Vera Kuznetsova, who sells kitchen supplies here, was born the year Yuri Gagarin made that first orbit.
KUZNETSOVA: (Russian language spoken)
GREENE: We were first and could not be beaten, she said. But that was the Soviet Union. She feels her country now lags behind in science and technology. But she added that she's happy her country is no longer feared by the West.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GREENE: Sergei Krikalev, who heads Russia's Gagarin Center for Cosmonaut Training, was there for the unveiling and he said the setting is appropriate.
SERGEI KRIKALEV: Captain Cook, who was navigator on Earth and Gagarin, who first navigator outside of our planet, are standing looking at each other. I think it's very symbolic.
GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.