It’s Been 60 Years Since the First Human Spaceflight, And We Have Come So Far

On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin delivered on the dreams of countless generations by becoming the first human being in history to enter outer space. As he awaited launch in his Vostok 1 spacecraft, Gagarin famously said “Поехали!” (“Let’s go!”)—a statement that reflected his own enterprising personality, and one that has also become a succinct motto of human spaceflight as a whole.

On Monday, space enthusiasts around the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of this incredible achievement, which paved the way for the hundreds of astronauts who have followed Gagarin’s lead into space in the subsequent decades. Within the past few years alone, the space community has made several huge advances, including the first crewed commercial missions to space, the first all-women spacewalk, and the Twin Study, which examined identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly while Mark was on Earth and Scott was in space. 

April 12 is officially recognized as the International Day of Human Space Flight by the United Nations, and many space lovers participate in a world space party known as “Yuri’s Night” to mark the momentous occasion.

“The search for infinity is profoundly inscribed in each one of us, and space travel is a very concrete way to realize this quest to discover our phenomenal universe,” said Clément Fortin, Professor of the Practice at the Space Center at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow, Russia, in an email. “Gagarin’s achievement was to open the way to these immense possibilities, however difficult to achieve concretely.”

The first crewed spaceflight is a global human milestone, but this day has special resonance for Russians, for whom Gagarin is a beloved national hero whose name graces many monuments, buildings, and locations across the country.   

“There will be a lot of celebrations in Russia on this anniversary,” said Anton Ivanov, director of Skoltech’s Space Center, in an email. “We will participate in many events explaining how space technology works and what the future holds for space exploration,” he added, citing a program called Planet Watch, which aims to engage new generations of dreamers with spaceflight, as an example.

To that point, human spaceflight has become such a successful endeavor over the past 60 years that it is almost a foregone conclusion for many young people. Anyone on Earth who is below the age of 20, for instance, has never experienced a time when there were no humans in orbit, as the International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously occupied since November 2, 2000. Even before that, Russia’s Mir space station, which orbited Earth from 1986 to 2001, pioneered long-duration crewed spaceflight; Russian Mir cosmonauts still hold the top three records for longest human spaceflights in history.

“He was literally riding a bomb.”

But before Gagarin’s journey 60 years ago, no human had ever crossed into the expanse beyond Earth. The Soviet space program had sent many other animals into space—most famously the dog Laika, the first animal to orbit Earth—but Gagarin faced an entirely new challenge with enormous stakes that would completely change the course of spaceflight history, no matter how the mission turned out.

“At the time, in the early 60s, rocket technology was not perfected; despite many tests, early rockets still [tended] to blow up,” Ivanov pointed out. “Before Gagarin’s launch, there were a number of unsuccessful launches. He was literally riding a bomb. Since the cosmonauts knew the statistics very well, it took a lot of courage to climb up Vostok 1 and perform the mission.”

Fortunately, the bravery of Gagarin and his team paid off. After spending several hours inside Vostok 1 on the launchpad, Gagarin at last lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, a spaceport in Kazakhstan, at 6:07 UTC. He entered orbit minutes later, and maintained a calm and positive attitude throughout the 108-minute duration of the flight. 

Vostok 1’s cabin was a spherical module primarily made of aluminum alloy and coated with ablative material. Unlike capsules today, it wasn’t built to safely touch down with Gagarin still inside. As a result, this small metal ball was equipped with an eject option that Gagarin had to execute so that he would be thrown from the craft miles above Earth, enabling him to parachute down to safety, while Vostok 1 landed separately. 

After completing one circuit around Earth, Vostok 1 re-entered the atmosphere and Gagarin successfully ejected himself out of an open hatch and drifted down into a rural area of Kazakhstan.

Though the mission was a success, it was also a hair-raising adventure. Anastasia Ilina, founder of the Russian cosmonautics popularization community Space Flight and project coordinator of the Skoltech Space Center, described Vostok 1 as “a flight into the unknown, a flight without guarantees,” in an email. 

“During the flight of Yuri Gagarin, there were difficulties with closing the spacecraft’s hatch, and after launching, the ship moved in a higher orbit than planned,” she said. “When returning, the braking propulsion system gave out an incomplete impulse for braking, which led to the ship’s torsion and a difficult landing.” 

“But there are always technical difficulties, and they are overcome,” Ilina added. “The main thing is that the first flight taught a whole team (cosmonauts, instructors, engineers) to work harmoniously and manage equipment in outer space.”

Born and raised in Star City, a small town near Moscow and home to the Yuri A. Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, Ilina has been immersed in the legacy of this landmark mission—and its many successors—for her whole life. She is among the many space enthusiasts around the world who will be reflecting on the legacy of Vostok 1 this Monday, and also looking forward to the next big milestones in space.

Indeed, Gagarin proved that a person could hop into a metal ball and change the trajectory of human exploration forever. Within a decade of his trailblazing spaceflight, multiple astronauts in the Apollo program had stepped foot on the Moon, an American achievement born from the intense Cold War rivalry triggered by Soviet successes in the Space Race.

While geopolitical tensions between spacefaring nations certainly still exist, human spaceflight has evolved into a much more cooperative endeavor today. The ISS has been visited by astronauts from 18 different nations, and new international collaborations, such as the NASA-led Artemis Program, aim to send humans back to the Moon. The advent of commercial crewed spaceflight is also reshaping human spaceflight, heralding a new era of civilian space tourism on the horizon.

Human spaceflight is challenging, dangerous, and expensive, but for Gagarin and all those he inspired, the rewards are well worth the risks. The strides that humans have made in space over the past 60 years since Vostok 1 are astonishing, and it’s humbling to imagine what we might be able to accomplish over the next six decades. 

For instance, NASA’s Artemis Program aims to land crews on the Moon within the decade, which will include the first women astronauts to reach the lunar surface. The agency also plans to build a “Lunar Gateway” around the Moon that will serve as a crewed outpost. These efforts are intended to establish a pathway to human missions to Mars, which NASA hopes to accomplish no earlier than the 2030s.  

Human exploration of Mars or other distant celestial bodies may ultimately not materialize within the next few decades, but many in the spaceflight community still hope to see these dreams come to fruition whenever the time is right. As with Gagarin’s feat, these dreams of interplanetary travel are not only about exploration of the immense universe beyond our planet, they are about finding common ground right here on Earth.

“I believe that exploring the Moon and Mars will be very important for humanity,” Ivanov said. “We do have the technology, and the nations have to come together to make this endeavor possible. I can see the exploration of outer space as one of the ideas for humanity to come together.”

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