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 Photograph of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin at a press conference during his visit to Finland.

60 years of space travel: From Yuri Gagarin to the Mars Rover

Yuri Gagarin in 1961 | Image: Wikimedia Commons

On April 12th, 1961 Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin - a Russian industrial technician - orbited Earth for 89 minutes and returned safely back to terra firma. With the world’s population in awe, Gagarin became a household name internationally and was awarded the title of Hero Of The Soviet Union.

Man’s relationship with space would never be the same. It was at this point that what came to be known as The Space Race really kicked into gear. They had already been vying to explore beyond the stratosphere with some success, but after Gagarin’s voyage, the USSR and the USA stepped up their plans to reach landmark achievements in space exploration.

Initiating the space race

Previous to Gagarin’s trip, there had been tentative steps from both sides that ultimately made his voyage possible. Russia made the initial breakthrough by launching USSR Sputnik in October 1957. This was the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth and the progress was doubled when only one month later in November of that year the Soviets launched Sputnik 2 - this time containing a passenger. A stray street dog named Laika was onboard Sputnik 2 and she became the first live organism to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. Sadly she died within hours from overheating but her name will be remembered throughout history.

On 31 January 1958, it was the turn of the USA to enter the Space Race. Launching Explorer 1, they stepped up the competition by including scientific measuring instruments on board. Using a cosmic ray detector, their key finding was the Van Allen Belt - a discovery that would shape later developments when it came to strategizing further space travel.

At this point, the USA and USSR went into full Space Race mode. Various subsequent satellites were launched by both parties and then, on 19th August 1960, the USSR made another landmark first when they sent living organisms into space and returned them. Alongside a collection of plants, two dogs - Belka and Strelka - made the trip and returned unharmed. The USA refused to be beaten by this development and the following year, on 31st January 1961, they sent Ham - a chimpanzee - into space and successfully returned the hominid.

The first humans in space

Not to be upstaged by an ape, later that year Yuri Gagarin made his visit to the stars. By this point, the newspapers back on Earth were constantly filled with stories of space travel and only one month later, the US astronaut Alan Shepherd completed the first pilot-controlled journey beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Two years later in June 1963, the USSR made another first when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. Spending nearly three days up there on Vostok 6, she orbited the Earth 48 times before coming home. Less than two years later in March 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first to leave a spacecraft. In a specially developed spacesuit, he left Voskhod 2 and embarked on a twelve-minute spacewalk.

Success and tragedy

Expanding the range of human achievement still further and going beyond any previous successes in terms of distance travelled, in July 1965 the USA sent a satellite named Mariner 4 on the first voyage to the planet Mars.

Sadly 1967 saw the darkest years of The Space Race with both the USSR and the USA experiencing tragedy in their endeavours. In January of that year, Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White sadly died when a fire broke out on the launch pad during the launch of Apollo 1. Months later, Russia would feel similar pain when Vladimir Komarov passed away upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere when his parachute failed to launch after he left Soyuz 1.

Things got back on track in 1968 when in December, the US spacecraft Apollo 8 launched and saw the first crewed spacecraft manage to reach the Moon, orbit it and return. The USA then broke the mould the following year. On 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins not only reached the moon but Aldrin and Armstrong also left their craft and stepped out onto the moon’s surface whilst Collins continued to orbit.

On 11th April 1970, another disaster struck the USA’s space program. The Apollo 13 suffered an explosion on board but thankfully this time the crew survived. History was made again in April 1971 when the USSR launched the world’s first-ever space station.

Improved relations

In 1971, David Scott commanded the Apollo 15 mission. Scott is remembered for an act that played a part in improving relations between the US and the USSR when he paid tribute to those astronauts who had perished attempting to advance space exploration, leaving a plaque to honour them all on the moon’s surface. This - alongside a general easing of tension between the two nations - led to the USA and the USSR collaborating and in 1975 they launched the Apollo-Soyuz mission. Travelling out of the Earth’s atmosphere separately, the Apollo and the Soyuz crafts aligned and docked in space. Tom Stafford and Alexei Leonov, commanders of either spaceship, exchanged the first international handshake outside of the Earth’s orbit.

Beyond The Space Race, countless discoveries were made as mankind continued to explore the solar system. In 1974, the first photograph of Venus was taken from space by NASA and then, in 1982, the USSR increased our knowledge of that same planet when Venusian soil samples were taken and sound recordings captured.

Both nations continued their explorations, albeit at a slower pace. Bruce McCandless underwent the first untethered spacewalk in February 1984 for NASA and then, six years later the first photograph of the whole Solar System was taken by the same agency in 1990. 1995 saw the longest ever duration for spaceflight recorded by Valeri Polyakov, who was out there for 437 days.

21st Century so far

With the blueprint set in the 20th Century, the current millennium has seen man’s interaction with space increase in a massive way. Japan, India, China and the European Union have all become involved in separate missions. Satellites have orbited asteroids, circled Saturn and Mercury, orbited dwarf planets and more. Probes have landed on comets and even probed interstellar space.

What’s more, we’ve now seen the successful landing of Perseverance which launched in March 2020 and landed less than a year later in February 2021. At the time of writing, Perseverance is still underway, seeking signs of ancient life and collecting samples of rock and soil - knowledge that will keep mankind’s dream of one-day landing humans on the surface of the Red Planet alive.

Looking to the future

There is another 21st Century development that could ultimately turn out to be the most important of all. In 2004, Mike Melvill was the first private astronaut to successfully complete a space mission independently. In the intervening years, Elon Musk has developed SpaceX with the aim of reducing the cost of space transportation, ultimately with a view to colonizing Mars. The early signs for Musk’s venture are positive with successful rocket launches and crewed visits to the International Space Station - assisted in some part by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ funding.

In the previous century, it had been assumed that progress in the arena of space travel would be achieved through the one-upmanship of different nations attempting to beat one another on the road to exploring the solar system. With recent events, it looks increasingly likely that corporations will find a way to do it faster… and cheaper. It seems that the future of space travel is private.