Yuri Gagarin: 60 years since the first human in space

When many of us think of the history of space exploration, the Moon landing of 1969 is one of the most popular moments, but it was certainly not the first.

In fact, when Neil Armstrong became the first man on the Moon in July 1969, humans had already been in space for several years. But where did it all begin, why did it happen and how did it shape history?

Crucially, something which was true in 1961 which still holds true today is this – we haven’t found any signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, despite more than half a century of exploration. Earth is, for all we know, the only oasis of life in a volatile, lifeless cosmos. How we treat our planet matters, as it could just be the only beacon of life for light years around.

“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it!

– Yuri Gagarin, Soviet pilot and Cosmonaut

Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old Russian cosmonaut, became the first human to reach space on 12th April 1961 at the height of the Cold War, a period of geopolitical tension which existed between the USSR and the West following the Second World War. Just like the Cold War, space proved to be every bit as frosty and unpredictable for Gagarin.

Frosty reception

When Yuri Gagarin blasted off into space aboard his Vostok 1 spacecraft, there was a battle going on to assert dominance over space, now known as the Space Race. The Soviets and the US were considered the world’s two largest superpowers, representing two radically different ways of running the world.

Little was known about the environmental impact of blasting rockets off into space, whether manned or unmanned. As we now know, 60 years of sending probes and astronauts into orbit and beyond has created an orbiting necklace of debris above the Earth. Our quest to reach the stars has ended up creating a significant problem which may actually make it harder to achieve it as time progresses.

However, this was an issue yet to be realised, as the Soviets and the Americans were just determined to invest as much money and resources into ensuring that they were seen to be the first to assert scientific dominance. Space was an uncharted territory, ripe for being seized by the superpower to reach it first.

Ultimately, the Soviets lost the Space Race, as the US managed to make a manned lunar mission first. Even so, the first battle was won by the Soviets, in getting a human to reach space. Gagarin’s journey took him to a maximum height of 203 miles, lasting 108 minutes. Scientists were unsure how weightlessness would affect Gagarin once he left the pull of Earth’s gravity, and his capsule contained little by way of onboard control equipment.

Upon breaching Earth’s atmosphere, Gagarin would have encountered something no human had encountered before – a cold, lifeless vacuum, with a spectacular blue-greenish object right below him.

Golden anniversary of space exploration

Yuri Gagarin came back down to Earth as a hero, representing a new pinnacle of human achievement. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash in 1968, but his journey into space went into the history books, and his achievement was celebrated not only in the USSR but all over the world. When the Apollo 11 astronauts left the Moon in 1969, a commemorative medallion bearing Gagarin’s name was left on the lunar surface. With no atmosphere or elements to dislodge it, this lasting tribute to Gagarin could remain there for millions of years.

While humanity’s first foray into space was considered part of a clash of civilisations at the height of the Cold War, fortunately, modern-day space-based activity is far more collaborative. There are numerous space agencies, and over half a century since Gagarin entered space, a handful of international astronauts are stationed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) at any one time.

The ISS allows nations to come together and achieve a common goal. It is a hub of activity, allowing countries to share resources and research. Without the ISS, for example, we wouldn’t be able to keep track of the retreat of our polar ice caps.

While Yuri Gagarin must have had a seemingly frosty reception when he first entered space in 1961, the world of space exploration is now a warm joint effort between nations, and the international community is constantly doing its bit to keep an eye on the planet.

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