“Let’s go!” cried Yuri Gagarin, as his Vostok rocket blasted off for the world’s first manned spaceflight on the morning of 12 April 1961
108 minutes later, he parachuted back down to Earth, landing close to the Volga in the village of Smelovka, in a fallow field. In that brief period of time, he had made a single orbit of Earth – and cracked open the door to a new era.
Right: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, 12 April 1961. © Roscosmos PAO
That was the first time a human being had ever looked down on Earth with their very own eyes from an altitude in excess of 300 kilometres. Gagarin’s mission proved that humans could survive the rigours of spaceflight – the strong forces of acceleration and deceleration during launch and landing, weightlessness in space, and radiation exposure at high altitudes. But Gagarin did not just survive his adventure; he thrilled to the view that unfolded. “I see Earth!” he radioed from orbit. “What beauty! I can see the clouds, it’s beautiful!”
Since that momentous day, more than 500 people have followed Gagarin into space. In the early years, mankind’s adventure into the cosmos developed into a fiercely fought race between the two superpowers of the time, the Soviet Union and the United States, each vying to outdo the other with a series of firsts. Two years after it sent the first man into space, the Soviet Union also sent the first woman – Valentina Tereshkova. Another two years down the line and Alexei Leonov was the first human being to step outside a space capsule and walk in space.
But the Americans did not allow themselves to become discouraged: just a few short weeks after Gagarin’s flight, US President John F. Kennedy famously declared in his historic speech that America would land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out.
Left: On 20 July 1969, humans from Earth first set foot on another celestial body. Neil Armstrong made his ‘giant leap for mankind’, stepping onto the surface of the moon. © NASA
And, indeed, that monumental feat was accomplished. On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Sea of Tranquillity, close to the lunar equator, while Michael Collins remained in orbit aboard the Apollo 11 command module, waiting to welcome his colleagues back on board for the return flight to Earth. When the three astronauts splashed down safely in the Pacific three days later, the door to space had finally been thrown wide open.
Right: The Apollo 11 crew – Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin. © NASA
Five more moon landings followed, and the moon orbit by the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Then a period of relative calm descended. All subsequent manned space missions have been restricted to a low Earth orbit. While the United States developed a new system for transporting astronauts into space – the Space Shuttle – the Soviet Union focused on building and operating space stations, successfully launching a series of Salyut stations into Earth orbit.
Below left: Soviet cosmonauts and guests from many other nations conducted scientific experiments aboard the Mir space station (1986–2001), and amassed significant experience of extended stays in space. © STS-89 Crew, NASA
In the process, the Soviet scientists gradually gained the experience and perfected the requisite technologies which led to the Mir space station – the first to be comprised of more than one module. Mir was steadily expanded throughout its 15-year life, becoming a more and more complex structure as time went by. Both Soviet cosmonauts and guests from many other nations conducted scientific experiments aboard, and amassed significant experience of extended stays in space. Valeri Polyakov spent more than 14 months aboard the station, and still holds the record for the longest continuous sojourn in space.
By the mid-1980s, the United States, which had also operated a space station in 1973 and 1974 (Skylab), had begun working on plans for a larger station. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up a world of new possibilities, and the United States, Europe, Canada and Japan all joined forces with Russia to build and operate the International Space Station (ISS). The first module, which was derived from Mir’s base module, was launched into orbit in November 1998, and two years later the first resident crew was sent up to the station. In the intervening years, it has been expanded module by module, culminating in its current setup.
The ISS is now virtually complete and offers accommodation and workspace for six people. A picture of Yuri Gagarin takes pride of place on the wall. Shortly before his pioneering flight, Gagarin spoke of the tremendous responsibility he felt: “This responsibility is not toward one person, not toward a few dozen, not toward a group. It is a responsibility toward all mankind – toward its present and its future.” Historic words which have lost none of their relevance 50 years on.
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Living in Space Dossier: Human beings beyond the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere