1961: The race for the moon begins

Just after 9 a.m. Moscow time on April 12, 1961, Russian test pilot Yuri Gagarin roared into space from the Soviet Union's top-secret rocket base in Baikonur. "I see the Earth!" the first human in space radioed back 40 years ago. "It's so beautiful!"

After one orbit, Gagarin reentered Earth's atmosphere and parachuted to safety, landing just before 11 that same morning. He proudly introduced himself to startled villagers as "the first spaceman in the world." His 108-minute flight shocked the world.

Today, we're pretty used to humans in orbit. With the building of the International Space Station, there are now (and will be) humans in orbit every moment. But 40 years ago, a human in space was a shock.

In 1961, the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a "cold war." They weren't shooting at each other, but they were competing hard. Each feared that the other would gain an advantage and try to attack. Each worried about its prestige in the eyes of the world. The fact that the Soviets had put a man in space - only four years after launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite - alarmed many Americans. Were the Soviets better than us?

Meanwhile, the Soviets were proud of Gagarin's flight. What they didn't say was how dangerous it had been. The authorities had prepared three press releases before the launch: one to use if the flight succeeded and two if it failed. The capsule had begun to spin wildly on its descent, Gagarin testified in secret. He had nearly passed out. And the Russians did not admit until much later that Gagarin was required to eject from his capsule in order to land. (Some aviation records require that a pilot land with his craft.)

A new kind of competition

Many scientists in the US were excited by the news, says NASA historian Roger Launius. They congratulated their colleagues in the USSR. The US, in fact, had been preparing to send its first astronaut into space.

But Soviet scientists hadn't set out to compete against the US in outer space, says Roald Sagdeev. He is a nuclear physicist who now teaches at the University of Maryland. Professor Sagdeev headed the USSR's Space Research Institute for 15 years. He says Sputnik was launched as part of an International Geophysical Year program to study the upper atmosphere.

"The scientists didn't realize it would create such an international uproar," Sagdeev says. But once the Soviet government - and the US government, for that matter - saw the propaganda value of outer space, they devoted more resources to it.

Sagdeev recalls those days as "a period of great enthusiasm for the Russian people.... We had the feeling that Russia was catching up to the West."

But on the American side, Dr. Launius explains that "The Soviets were waxing our skis." What he means is that by seeming to challenge the US to a "space race," the Soviets were vastly speeding up America's space effort. Money poured into the US program.

Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., aboard a spacecraft he named Freedom 7. He was in outer space for only 15 minutes.

On May 25, without a single American astronaut having yet orbited the Earth, President John F. Kennedy said to the world: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Go to the moon? American scientists were shocked again. "We didn't know how to do that in 1961," Launius says. They had to learn what humans needed to stay in space for a long time. They had to design powerful rockets and sophisticated spacecraft.

By 1969, they were ready. On July 20, just before 10 p.m., Central Time, Neil Armstrong hopped down from the Lunar Excursion Module and announced: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

On to Mars! But when?

What was once a two-nation rivalry has become multinational cooperation. Some 15 countries are helping to build the International Space Station. (It's pictured above the way it looks today. Note the Russian space capsule docked to its underside.) Manned space exploration is too expensive - and too low a priority -for any nation to go it alone.

Having lost the race to the moon, the Soviet Union invested in long-duration orbital flights around Earth. These culminated in the Mir (Peace) space station. Launched Feb. 20, 1986, it made a fiery descent to Earth on March 23.

Meanwhile, with no more flights to the moon after 1972, the United States space effort turned in earnest to developing the Space Shuttle. The first shuttle was launched on the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's flight, April 12, 1981 - 20 years ago.

Now the Space Shuttle's lifting capacity and the Russians' experience in long-duration spaceflight are coming together on the space station.

"A manned flight to Mars is inevitable," says NASA spokesman Don Savage, "and there's a lot we don't know. How will we sustain a mission ... that could last one, two, or maybe three years? But we will do it someday."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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