13 April 2015
In 1961 Yuri Gagarin made a complete orbit of the Earth in Vostok 1, becoming the first human to travel beyond the terrestrial sky. It was celebrated around the world, and the annual commemoration is still known as Yuri’s night. With a single rocket launch, what was just a dream became reality. In a mere eight years, humans had reached the Moon, and there were dreams of going to Mars and beyond.
After the Moon landings, human space flight became less ambitious, and focused on low Earth orbit. Small space stations were built, eventually leading to the International Space Station, which began construction in 1998. Over the decades robotic space probes have landed on Venus, Mars and Titan, and have traveled to the outer regions of the solar system. But crewed mission have not traveled beyond the Moon. A return mission to the Moon, much less beyond, remains a dream at this point.
While it might sound disappointing, it really is an indication of how our focus has shifted. Early spaceflight missions were high risk, and that risk has declined over the years. While we haven’t traveled much further than Yuri’s first flight, we now send more people, and they stay longer. We’ve reached the point where wealthy tourists now travel to the space station. And our robotic probes are laying the groundwork for crewed missions. While still just a dream, missions to the Moon, asteroids and Mars are in the planning stage. These missions are within our grasp, they will just take time to achieve.
The inspiration and drive that made Yuri’s night a reality is still very much a part of the human spirit.