On the morning of April 12, 1961, a man sat down in a seat in modern Kazakhstan. The seat was built inside of a spacecraft that had been designed to also act as an unmanned spy satellite and was mated to a rocket that was originally designed to be an ICBM. The man’s name was Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin and on that morning he became the first human being to slip beyond the edge of the thin atmosphere of our planet and soar into space. He achieved a maximum altitude of 327 kilometers, about 30 kilometers shy of the altitude of the International Space Station, and went around the Earth once. Gagarin was one of several candidates to make the trip and he was selected by a vote from his comrades. His Vostok 1 spacecraft was not even capable of landing in such a way that the Cosmonaut would survive. The flight program required him to eject from his craft after reentering the atmosphere and land separately by his own parachute. He was, and is to this day, praised as a hero. The idea of humans breaking the bond of the earth to leave our home world was no longer lost in the legends of science fiction. Manned spaceflight was now a reality.
[This post was written by GeekDad guest writer Michel Ardan.]
The hits started coming fast and furious after Gagarin’s flight. The next month, Alan Shepard became the first American into space, followed in July by Gus Grissom. Both of these flights were sub-orbital, part of the US plan to work up to orbital flight. In August the Soviets launched their second manned flight, piloted by Gherman Titov. Titov stayed in space for a full day, orbiting the Earth 17 times. Next up, in February of 1962 was John Glenn’s flight, the first time the American program put a man in orbit. Glenn orbited the Earth three times. After that, the records just started to be set left and right, or East and West as seen through the eyes of the Cold War. The American Mercury program built up to Gordon Cooper’s flight that lasted just shy of a day and a half and achieved 22 orbits. The Soviets continued their Vostok flights with many achievements including the first simultaneous flight of two manned spacecraft, the longest solo orbital flight of almost 5 days, and the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. All of these flights took place between April 1961 and June 1963 and paved the way for the successes to come.
With the space race in full gear, the achievements continued, including the first multi-person spacecraft, the first spacewalk, orbital rendezvous, transferring crew from one spacecraft to another, and numerous duration and altitude records. This was all seen as a part of a race to the Moon. The race also taught us the dangers of spaceflight. Heroes were lost and mourned on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Lessons were learned from these tragedies and humans continued to volunteer to be strapped to the top of rockets. In July of 1969 all of these historical events culminated with the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon. While on the surface this was an American victory in the space race, at a much deeper level, it was a victory for humanity. We had reached out and touched the surface of another world and looked back at the Earth in all its beauty.
Of course manned space exploration did not end with the Moon landings. Both the Soviet and American space programs developed research outposts in space. Both sides also looked into moving away from the capsule based flight and investigated a spacecraft with wings that could land and then fly again. The Americans called the program the Space Shuttle and the Soviets called their craft Buran. On the 12th of April in 1981, twenty years to the day after Gagarin had made his first manned spaceflight, American Astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen flew the Space Shuttle Columbia into space for the first time. Their mission lasted just over 2 days but paved the way for a revolution in spaceflight. Numerous scientific achievements were made using the Space Shuttle as a scientific laboratory capable of supporting up to 7 people for up to 15 days. The Space Shuttle has also launched a number of satellites on exploration missions, such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo missions. The Space Shuttle became the workhorse for construction of the International Space Station.
That is where we have come to today. While most major news networks carry the launch and landing of the Space Shuttle, to many, the idea of humans in space has become such a commonplace occurrence that it is almost taken for granted by the general population. There is a continuous multi-national presence aboard the International Space Station now. The durations for a person being in orbit, once measured in individual orbits, then days, and even weeks, can now be measured in months with a couple records exceeding a year aboard the Russian Mir space station in the 1990s. We talk of planning space exploration like a group of children who have learned how to ride their bikes and their parents are giving them a little more freedom. The questions to those children are no longer a matter of the ability to achieve a goal but, instead, are now focused on where to go and how to get to that destination. We are now looking at exploration returning to the Moon, going to Mars, conducting research at the Lagrange points, rendezvous with an asteroid, and many other possibilities that are straddling the line between the dreams of science fiction and the realities of the achievements of human beings. Sometimes, people have trouble believing in the achievements, they can seem so fantastic. The persistence of the notion that the Moon landings were faked speaks broadly to this fact. But believing the achievements or not does not make the reality any different. This kind of disbelief must be horribly frustrating to every single person that has been in space, but that is part of what makes them heroes. In the face of danger and in the face of disbelief these heroes rise above the Earth to make their home a better place and to push humans a little further out into the Universe.
All of this started with the bravery of a single Cosmonaut on April 12, 1961, who took that first ride into the vacuum of space. Today, on the 50th anniversary of that flight, we remember Yuri Gagarin and his achievement. If you can, take the time to look up at the sky tonight and let yourself feel that patter of excitement at the notion of exploration. Imagine what it would have felt like, sitting alone in that little capsule knowing that outside was nothing but the void of space. Imagine what it would have been like to be above all of the Earth. To look back and see not just a landscape beneath you but to see whole continents as you would look down upon a globe. I can’t help but wonder, with the excitement and wonder I see in my own children’s eyes, the places from which we will look back upon the Earth on the 100th anniversary of Yuri’s brave first flight.
Editor’s Note: Major kudos to Google for their retro-Soviet-style Google Doodle commemorating Yuri Gagarin’s flight: