| Print |
108 minutes that changed history
Fifty years ago today Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Will we ever recover the excitement of that moment?
Spaceflight has captured minds and hearts throughout the ages. The earliest attempt to enter space may have been in the 16th century. Legend has it that the Chinese philosopher Wan-Hu strapped rockets to the bottom of his wicker chair in an effort to propel himself into space, with unfortunate results. Wan-Hu’s physics was sound, but his safety procedures did not quite measure up to today’s standards. The first successful attempt by a human to reach space took place 50 years ago today – April 12, 1961.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history when he blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, the world’s first space launch facility. This calm and pleasant young man, selected for his exceptional resilience from a group of 20 top-quality pilots, was one of the most rigorously trained people on the planet. Despite the hardships and the evident dangers, Gagarin probably would not have traded places with anyone else on Earth. Before lift-off the 27-year-old cosmonaut broadcast a message to the nation in which he declared “All I have done and lived for, has been done and lived for this moment”. He didn’t know whether he would be coming back alive.
The mission was a complete success. Gagarin completed a full orbit of our planet in his tiny spherical capsule Vostok-1, admiring the stars and the beauty of the horizon. He successfully re-entered the atmosphere, ejected and touched down softly with his parachute in a field near the Volga river, just 108 minutes after lift-off.
Yuri Gagarin became Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s prize exhibit, and was feted as a hero both in Moscow and throughout the world. To his profound sorrow he was not allowed in space again – his symbolic value to the Soviet state was too great to risk his life. Ironically he was to die in a flying accident in 1968, just a year before the first moon landing. But his name, along with that of Neil Armstrong, will be remembered when many other events of the 20th century have faded into insignificance.
The space race began with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957, and was driven by Cold War competition. Despite early Soviet successes, the race was to culminate in Armstrong’s epic “small step” onto the Moon’s surface in 1969 – a resounding victory for the USA. The Americans owed much of their success to the willing capture of brilliant German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, designer of the V-2 rocket.
The USSR, on the other hand, already had a brilliant rocket scientist, but they almost killed him. Sergei Korolev, chief architect of the Soviet space program, and designer of the still-operational Soyuz craft, had been sent to Siberia during one of Stalin’s purges, and was at death’s door by the time he was tracked down and brought back to Moscow. Korolev was, by all accounts, a good man who suffered immensely under the pressure to achieve Soviet victory at all costs. He died in 1966. Who knows how the space race might have ended, had Sergei Korolev lived a few more years?
In contrast to those early years of fierce competition, later space missions have been characterised by co-operation. Our own century’s International Space Station (ISS) is an embodiment of this principle. Gagarin seemed to be looking into this future when he said of his mission “This is a responsibility to all the Soviet people, to all of humanity, to its present and future".
The great feats of last century’s space age heroes, from Gagarin onwards, not only inspired an entire generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts; they also fired the imagination of ordinary people throughout the world, at a time when they sorely needed hope and inspiration. In the 60s, with the Cuban missile crisis fresh in everyone’s minds, spirits were low and scaremongering was rife. When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, many people were inspired to shelve their fears and take up their binoculars instead. Human space travel is not solely about scientific or purely material human advancement; it is also about helping people to lift their vision, to move from fear to hope.
This is why it is such a shame that President Barack Obama cancelled the Constellation program, initiated in 2004, which would have sent people back to the Moon by 2020. As part of this program two rockets, Ares I and V, were to replace NASA’s aging space shuttles. These would be built to stringent safety standards following the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003. A crew vehicle was to be developed, Orion, capable of carrying four astronauts at a time to and from the moon, with a longer term objective of establishing a lunar base for scientific research. Billions of dollars, years of hard work, and many careers were dedicated to Constellation. Unfortunately, with the effects of the global financial crisis, the project had fallen behind and become too expensive to maintain.
It is to Obama’s credit that he actually increased NASA’s budget last year. The controversy lies in the direction taken by the new space program, which has been heavily criticised by many, notably Neil Armstrong, who protested that the USA was set to fall behind other countries as a space-faring nation. Obama has committed his government to funding new technologies with the long-term goal of a manned mission to Mars in the mid-2030s, and a preparatory visit to an asteroid in 2025, but until that time there are no plans for manned space travel beyond low Earth orbit.
Obama considers re-visiting the moon to be a waste of time: “We’ve been there before”. This comment brings to mind President Eisenhower’s flippant remark when Sputnik was launched: “Why the worry? It’s just one small ball”.
The scrapped lunar missions would have provided plenty of opportunity for “inspiring wonder in a new generation” (Obama’s words), as well as for invaluable scientific research. They would have also provided astronauts with hands-on experience of spacecraft operation and long term stays beyond low earth orbit: essential preparation for manned deep-space travel. When the space shuttles are retired NASA’s finest will now have to hitch a lift to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, at US$50 million a seat, at least until government-funded private companies are in a position to provide suitable transport.
On a positive note Californian company Spacex appear to be shaping up nicely, with a heavy commercial rocket in the pipeline, which has been designed to conform to NASA’s safety standards for the transportation of humans. And Obama plans to extend operation of the ISS until 2020. There is much that is good in the current space program, but at its core is technology, not humanity.
Yuri Gagarin had only the writings of Jules Verne to inspire him as a child. We baby-boomers are lucky to have had Gagarin, Armstrong and all the other brave men and women who gave their careers, and sometimes their lives, for the edification of the human race.
Whether or not our children and grandchildren will be similarly inspired depends on the space programs of countries such as Russia and China, which are bound to be more exciting than that of the current world leader in space. Dr David Whitehouse, renowned space scientist and author, wrote in 2009, “Somewhere, a young child is growing up who will not only become captivated by our future voyages to the Moon but will also cast their imagination even further. At this very moment, the first person to set foot upon Mars is dreaming of astronauts”. Let us hope he is right.
*Thanks to Vix Southgate, Yuri Gagarin expert and children’s author, for transcribing Gagarin’s speech.
Sue Alexander-Barnes writes from Sheffield, in the UK.
Want to read more articles by Sue Alexander-Barnes Click on the links below
This article is published by Sue Alexander-Barnes and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.