The 50th anniversary of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space was Tuesday, but received little notice in the United States. Iowa State history professor James Andrews is an expert in Russian history, and says Gagarin’s flight was really the big moment that pushed the U.S. space program ahead.

Andrews says the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 was a catalyst for the space program, but he says Gagarin’s flight in April 1961 and the later flight of the first woman into space really were the catalysts that set off the U.S. space program. Andrews says the U.S. decided it needed to focus to achieving a first of its own, and went on to do that by landing a man on the moon. He says the Soviet space program became fractured after the first human flights and fell behind in the space race.

He says there was a lot of competition in the country among the various directors and they were pumping more money into their intercontinental ballistic missile program and took more of a focus on their military pursuits. Andrews says space exploration seems to have lost interest for today’s generation.

Andrews says he finds the space race legacy “interesting” as he grew up in the 1960’s and the Apollo program and the space race was very much a part of his generation’s upbringing. But he says that’s not the case now, and he was shocked to some extent to find there has not been not that much international news on the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. He says the focus has changed dramatically in the half century since the space race first heated up.

The Soviet Union is no longer, but Andrews says Russia is trying to renew the focus on space. Andrews says they are promoting events called “Space is for Humanity” that includes events in schools that promote knowledge about the space race and support science olympiads. He says Russia is trying to create what he calls a new “space consciousness” for the young, and the U.S. is not doing that. Andrews says those who support the space program in the U.S. have to lobby to keep it going.

Andrews is co-editor of a new book Space Exploration and Soviet Culture that’ll be released in August.