Happy Gagarin Day

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s historic flight. On 12 April 1961, aboard Vostok 1, Gagarin became the first human being in space. He madeone orbit of the Earth, in one hour and forty-eight minutes. In order to claim the FAI world record, the pilot has to be in the spacecraft when it lands, but Gagarin actually ejected seven kilometres above the ground and descended by parachute. This only came to light after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It does not not in any way invalidate Gagarin’s achievement.

Today is also the thirtieth anniverary of the launch of Columbia, the first Space Shuttle to reach orbit. Sadly, Columbia was lost on 1 February 2003 when it broke up on re-entry after sixteen days in orbit, killing all seven of its crew.

Gagarin’s flight ushered in over a decade of astonishing achievements in space, by both Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts. The Apollo Moon landings were, of course, the pinnacle. The Space Shuttle programme – with a design resulting from a series of unwise compromises – never made travel to orbit as routine as NASA had hoped, but after two decades of political vacillation it did finally gives us the International Space Station. It could also be argued that the Shuttle has restricted humanity to Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. The rest of the Solar system, the really exciting missions, now belongs to robots. And now the Shuttle is to be retired. Only two are still flying, and both will be decommissioned later this year.

It would be a shame if the achievements of the last fifty years in crewed space travel were to prove an historical aberration. Yuri Gagarin led the way, and each year we should honour that by doing more in space, by putting into effect plans to take us beyond the Moon, out to where the future of our race truly lies.

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