Editorial: Fifty years since Gagarin’s flight

Published in The Hindu on April 12, 2011

On a sunny morning 50 years ago, the 27-year-old carpenter’s son turned Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, stunned the world. Blasting off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin became the first human to travel into space. His journey aboard the Vostok spacecraft was unquestionably one of the great achievements of the 20th century and a landmark in human history. Coming as it did during the height of Cold War, Gagarin’s success appeared to establish his country’s supremacy in space technology. Just four months later, another Soviet cosmonaut, Gherman Titov, spent more than 25 hours in space and completed 17 orbits of the earth. America’s muted response saw Alan Shepard carrying out a sub-orbital flight lasting just 15 minutes in May 1961. The United States could redeem some pride only in February 1962 when John Glenn completed three orbits in space. Just a month after Gagarin’s historic space voyage, President John F. Kennedy declared that the U.S. would put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. The space race was on — and it was a race that America won hands down. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first men to set foot on another world. Ten more of their compatriots too left their footprints on the Moon.

But the U.S. Congress and the American public were not willing to continue funding further manned space exploration on the same scale. The U.S. space agency then turned to building the world’s first reusable spacecraft that could take humans and cargo into orbit. The first space shuttle, Columbia, flew in 1981, followed by four of its siblings, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. America’s dominance in space has continued unabated after the Soviet Union’s break-up. But with space programmes becoming more demanding, many major space initiatives are now joint endeavours involving many countries. The launch of the Hubble space telescope in 1990, a joint venture between the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency was the first such initiative. The International Space Station (ISS) involving 16 countries, including the U.S. and Russia, is another excellent example. Even India’s Chandrayaan-1 carried payloads from other countries. After NASA mothballs its shuttle programme this year, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft will be the only way that astronauts can travel to the ISS. The interest in manned spaceflight appears to be flagging in both the U.S. and Russia. It is, however, on the rise in China and India. Fifty years after man first ventured beyond the confines of Planet Earth, it is perhaps time for the spacefaring nations of the world to come together on a bold programme of manned space exploration.