Ad Astra! 50 Years of Man in Space

50 years ago today, a major event in history took place.   For the very first time, a man left the planet.   His name?  Yuri Gagarin.

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes and was fraught with drama: a break in data transmission, glitches involving antennas, a retrorocket and the separation of modules. And there was an overarching question that science had yet to answer: What would weightlessness do to a human being?

It was not just that question, there was a real danger that the rocket might not even get off the ground.  It was a “first,” in many ways, and no one was certain of anything.  Yet he got into the capsule, and went. 

“Gagarin was aware of the fears concerning zero gravity, and he also knew about all failed launches preceding his flight,” but he never showed any fear or doubt, Ivanovsky said.

On the eve of the flight, Gagarin and his backup, German Titov, went to bed early and were awakened at 5:30 a.m. Gagarin was joking, his pulse was an exemplary 64 beats a minute and it remained the same after he took his seat in the Vostok.

Before boarding, Gagarin saw Korolyov looking haggard after a sleepless night. “Don’t you worry, Sergei Pavlovich, he told the chief designer, “everything will be just fine.”

And it was.   50 years ago, nothing was certain.  There was no knowledge of just what the effects of zero gravity would be on human beings.   No one knew if he would survive the launch, if the capsule would work, if he could actually return back to Earth alive.  Afterward. all those questions were answered.    He was the first human ever to go into space, and to orbit the earth, and it happened 50 years ago today.  That was the start of humans leaving the planet.   Today, it’s celebrated as “Yuri’s Night,”  a series of space-themed parties around the world.

In the time since that date, much has happened.  We have visited the moon, several times. We’ve established several different space habitations, learning from each of them.  20 years to the day after the first man in space, the first reusable spacecraft went into space:  STS-1, Columbia. The Space Shuttle.  The shuttle program ends this year, after 30 years of service.  In that time, we have seen the building of the International Space Station,  the deployment of the Hubble Telescope,  repair missions, and scientific advancements.  It seems commonplace now, that people go into space. In some ways we’ve lost the wonder of it, that there are people right now living in space.

As with any exploration, there are dangers, and space is no exception.  Every now and then, we are brutally reminded of that fact:

Apollo 1 – a fire in the capsule killed Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee

Soyuz 1 – the landing parachutes tangled on during descent, killing Vladimir Komarov

Soyuz 11 – a valve opened in space, depressurizing the cabin and killing Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev

Space Shuttle Challenger – explosion of the fuel tank during ascent, killing Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair,  Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik

Space Shuttle Columbia – the first shuttle into space, broke apart during re-entry, killing Rick D. Husband,  William C. McCool,  Michael P. Anderson,  Ilan Ramon,   Kalpana Chawla,  David M. Brown, and  Laurel Clark.

We do not know what the next 50 years or beyond will bring.  That, in many ways is the province of science fiction.  But consider this:  For all the time that humans have been on this earth, they’d never left it.    50 years ago, that changed.   Yuri Gagarin showed it was possible, and where the possibility will lead us is the the next challenge awaiting us.



Filed under Science

4 responses to “Ad Astra! 50 Years of Man in Space

  1. Thanks so much for this, Norbrook.

    As a child in the 1980s, I was OBSESSED with the space program. I couldn’t tell you a darned thing about sports, but I could recite the names and missions of every astronaut and cosmonaut.

    Since Gagarin’s flight, so much has happened, as you stated. No, we don’t have bases on Mars, but we’ve sent probes to every planet in the solar system. We have people living in space aboard the largest structure ever built by man. We’ve had joint missions with other nations. The technological spinoffs have been astounding–I wonder if all the folks drooling over their latest i-watchamacallits even realize that they were only possible due to the technological progress made thanks to the efforts to get man into space?

    In the next 50 years…who knows? I’m hoping for more manned explorations, visits to other planets, and efforts at colonizing the moon. To paraphrase a quote I once read, “we’ve been a planet-bound race for too long, caught up in petty squabbles over territory and politics. We have to look out further, to get out there and ensure our survival as a species.”

    Or as Robert A. Heinlein put it, “the Earth is too fragile a basket for the human race to keep its eggs in.”

    Yuri Gagarin proved that man could survive in space. Whether he was a Russian is no issue–he was a human being, and his first step lead to many others following him.

    • You’re welcome. I was obsessed as a child in the ’60’s. I had models of all the spacecraft, I had books on it, and I could tell you all the astronauts names. I watched as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. It was a moment you never forget. There’s a tendency to take all that “for granted,” and it’s necessary to remember that there was a time when it was anything but, and that we still shouldn’t.

      We keep learning, and we keep exploring. The probes we send out to answer questions often turn out to raise other questions, that we never thought of before. That’s why we explore.

  2. Every time I see the name Christa McAuliffe I want to cry. There was something about her dying in the Challenger explosion … a civilian and a teacher … that struck me very hard. 😦

    Space is very cool. There is still so much to learn.

    • Agreed. It was a reminder that there is always danger in exploration, even when you think it’s “safe.”

      But yes, we still have so much to learn, and some of it can only be learned if we send the most versatile scientific instrument around – a human being.