Commentary: In my Havana childhood, cosmonauts were the first space heroes

The Miami HeraldMarch 4, 2012 

If you were in elementary school in the early 1960s, it was impossible not to be captivated by the dawning space age. You'd hear about new triumphs and new firsts just about every day in school, in the newspapers and on TV.

But if you were a kid growing up in Havana, as I was, the space heroes had different names.

John Glenn? Never heard of him.

America and much of the rest of the world grew up celebrating the exploits of Glenn and the Mercury 7 astronauts, an elite group overflowing with what author Tom Wolfe aptly dubbed “the right stuff.”

In Cuba, only the left stuff mattered.

As far as I and the rest of my classmates at the Escuela Primaria Marcelo Salado knew, the Soviets had done it all.

Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly into space and into orbit. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and Laika was the first dog in space. They were cosmonauts, not astronauts.

Though I was a little distracted by a mad crush on my first-grade teacher, Señorita María, I can recall hearing how socialism was bettering not only the world, but the universe beyond. (On the first day of class, she wrote something on the blackboard for us to copy in our notebooks, the first sentence I ever wrote: “ Marx y Engels nacieron en Alemania.” I had no idea who Marx and Engels were, or why it mattered they were born in Germany, but if it made Señorita María happy....)

We never heard about what the Yanquis were doing, or that they were flying into space, too. (Except for the failures. When Apollo 1 caught fire on the launchpad in 1967, killing three astronauts, it was front-page news in Havana.)

The Cold War, and the Cuban government’s antagonism toward anything American, meant all we heard was that our friends in the Soviet Union had conquered space.

This month’s 50th anniversary of Glenn’s missions brought these dim memories back to me, memories no doubt familiar to many others in South Florida who share a similar history. Glenn rocketed into space only a few hundred miles north of Havana, but it might as well have happened on another planet.

It wasn’t until after I arrived in the United States in January 1968, finishing elementary school in Norton, Kan., that I heard about Glenn, Alan Shepard and the other astronauts in the American space program.

Ours was the only Cuban family in the tiny farming community, and we became minor celebrities, getting our picture in The Norton Daily Telegram for having fled Communist Cuba. The Cold War had touched little Norton.

As I began to understand English, I realized my classmates at Eisenhower Elementary were captivated by space too. Every morning Miss Roush, my fifth-grade teacher, had a student stand in front of the class and read about current events from that day’s paper. Often the stories were about the space program — and about America’s mission to land on the moon.

(Miss Roush has a special place in my memory. Each day, after giving assignments to the rest of the class, she’d grab a set of flashcards and sit down with me to teach me English. “Bathtub,” she’d say, holding up a picture. “Basstub.” “BATHtub.” “Bathtub.” “Very good.”)

By 1968, the early days of the space race with the Soviets were history — Gagarin had been eclipsed by Glenn and others, the Soviets left far behind in the race to the moon.

I became something of a space-age nut — in my family, as in most American homes at the time, we didn’t miss a moment of the moon landing. To this day I’m fascinated by the exploration of space, and I remain a hardcore fan of science fiction. I have no doubt much of that is due to growing up, both here and there, with stories about cosmonauts and astronauts.

Though we celebrated the recent anniversary of Glenn’s orbiting the earth, I think those who came of age after the early years of the space race are largely unaware that there were others who ventured out there. too, half a century ago. The space age was built on their work as well as ours — today, American astronauts fly to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets.

Yes, the communists manipulated the cosmonauts’ achievements for brazen propaganda. But that doesn’t negate the reality that, in the space race, there were genuine heroes on both sides.

Whether their names were Shepard or Gagarin, Glenn or Tereshkova, from the right or the left, they all had the courage to go where no man had gone before, and surely that’s worth remembering.

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