Yuri Gagarin – The beginning of human space travel

As the first man ever, Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth 60 years ago. On April 12, 1961 his flight marked the beginning of the race for space between East and West.

Yuri Gagarin

April 12th, 1961: Yuri Gagarin took off on board a Vostok-1 rocket and fully orbited the Earth. He was the first man in space. The foundryman was still being trained as a fighter pilot when chosen for the space mission.

Before Gagarin, space engineers had hardly any experience with living creatures in space. The two dogs Belka and Strelka, along with a rabbit, 40 mice and two rats, were the first animals to survive a trip into space. They took off on 19th August, 1960, on board the satellite Sputnik-5 and returned safely inside a landing capsule.

After his return, Gagarin became a celebrity. He traveled the whole world as an ambassador for the Soviet space program. After that he was supposed to train for future cosmonauts. But it never came to that. He first wanted to complete his training as a fighter pilot and on March 27, 1968, had a fatal crash with an MIG-15 during a training excercise.

Despite the ongoing Cold War, Gagarin received recognition for his achievement in East and West alike. But the news also sped up the Americans’ efforts to prove themselves in space. This edition of the Huntsville Times quotes German-American rocket engineer Wernher von Braun as warning the US not to lag behind the Soviet space program.

On February 20, 1962, it was the Americans’ turn: A Mercury-Atlas-6 rocket carried the first astronaut into space. John Glenn orbited the Earth three times. He was a more experienced pilot than Gagarin. Before becoming an astronaut, Glenn had already begun a career as a fighter- and test pilot with the Marines, breaking the supersonic record at the time.

Two years after Gagarin, the Soviet Union sent its first female cosmonaut into orbit. Valentina Tereshkova spent three days aboard space ship Vostok-6 and circled the earth 48 times. Here she stands between her cosmonaut colleagues Gagarin und Bykovski. She is a celebrity to this day: At the 2014 Sotchi Winter Olympics, she carried the Olympic flag. She is also a legislator in the Duma.

On 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. The U.S. had won the space race. To this day, NASA remains the only agency that has put men on the moon. However, for the last four decades the moon has not received very much attention. Research and development have focused primarily on space stations, Earth observation, telecommunication and deep space exploration.

Especially in Eastern Europe, people have kept the memory of Gagarin alive. The Soviet Union made an effort to enable all allied socialist countries to send their own space travelers into orbit, such as East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and others. This was meant as a symbol of socialist unity and friendship.

With the end of the East-West confrontation, the race of the political systems faded and cooperation grew. It all started when the Soviets invited western astronauts to visit the MIR Space Station in the late 1980s. Today, efforts are concentrated on the International Space Station (ISS). Besides Russia and the US, participants include the European Space Agency (ESA), Canada and Japan.

In the decades to come, cooperation is most likely going to increase. Where will the journey lead us? It may be back to the moon. A moon village like this might one day even become a successor to the ISS.

Source: DW News