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.

Sue is married with four teenage children. She stayed home to mother them until her youngest started high school, and has since done some writing and run a small business from home. Her professional...