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60 Years of Human Space Flight

Space Race

It was mid-1955 and the USA and USSR were commencing the Space Race: a battle as part of the Cold War, with each side showing how it was better than the other, through technological development on an unprecedented scale [1].

It began with the USSR, a group of communist states with Russia at its heart, responding to the USA’s announcement of their plans to have the first satellite in Outer Space. An arms race had started, where the two countries were trying to make sure they would get the first satellite into Outer Space.

That award would go to the USSR in late-1957 with the launch of their small orb, Sputnik 1 (Спутник meaning ‘Fellow Traveller’ [2]), sparking numerous other innovations by both sides, in order to seem more powerful in Outer Space. From the USA’s weather satellite Explorer 1; to the USSR’s Sputnik 5 -not the vaccine- returning the first animals and plants back from Space alive (yes, previous missions did the same but never brought them back alive) including 2 dogs and some plants; to the USSR’s Lunar 1 which inadvertently became the first object to leave Earth’s orbit (it was supposed to go around the Moon, but hey!) [3].

However, there’s one thing that none of them did: send a human into Outer Space.

Sputnik 1 Replica

Sputnik 1 Replica. Credit: NSSDC, NASA

4 Years Later…

That was until just four years after the first technological feat in the Space Race. In spring of 1961 (60 years ago on Monday 12th April), the 27 year old Yuri Gagarin [4] from a collective farm in Klushino, 200 miles west of Moscow (a town so small the only landmarks on Google Maps today are Gagarin’s house and a mobile network operator [5]) left the place where most life had stayed for billions of years (apart from 3 dogs, some plants and a chimpanzee [3]), seeing a view no human had ever seen before.

But how did a person like Gagarin get to such heights? Well, apart from using the spacecraft Vostok-1 (Восток meaning ‘the East’ or ‘the Orient’ [6]) it was Gagarin’s fascination with aircraft from his childhood, building many model aircraft whilst learning about the heroes of the Soviet Air Forces at school after the Second World War. By 16, Gagarin worked at the the local foundry helping him gain a place at a technical school, and then a local flying club in 1955 (the start of the Space Race). Then, just 4 years later he was selected in secret by the USSR to be the first cosmonaut and, they hoped, the first human in Outer Space [7].

And they were, beating the USA’s Mercury mission by 3 weeks [7] (having already been delayed by some months due to safety concerns [8]). However, the USSR were pretty laid back with safety, so the night before the launch, the technicians realised the seat Gagarin would be sitting in for the flight was on the heavy side, so bits were frantically stripped off it [8]. They didn’t just do their homework the night before though; they did it on the day of the exam! Whilst getting ready for takeoff, the technicians couldn’t close the door, so a few screwdrivers later they were ready to launch [7].

As Dr. Who shouts “Geronimo”, Gagarin shot off into Outer Space shouting “Поехали” (pronounced “Payekhaleh” meaning “Let’s Go!”), spending just 108 minutes going around Earth before falling back down and landing in… a random part of the USSR, south east of Moscow and 300km south west of the planned landing site, due to another mistake where the spacecraft went 93km further up than it should have [7].

Vostok-1 flew down to 7km above the Earth’s surface, before Gagarin ejected and parachuted down the rest of the way (they hadn’t quite perfected the art of landing yet!). Falling back down to Earth in a place just south east of Saratov, he was seen by a woman and her granddaughter out planting potatoes in a field. The woman inquired “Have you come from space?” to which Gagarin responded triumphantly “As a matter of fact, I have!” [7] (although the exact conversation is debated [9]) [7][16].

Vostok 1 launching on 12th April 1961, with Gagarin inside

Vostok 1 launching on 12th April 1961, with Gagarin inside. Source: NASA

Six Impossible things before Lunch

By 10:57am, Gagarin became the first human to have been to Outer Space and back, and all in one morning! The USSR then told the world (having kept the mission a complete secret up to Gagarin’s safe return), making him the figure head of the Soviet space programme, whilst also forcing him to retire from a career in space, instead touring the world [8].

Three months into festivities, Gagarin headed for the UK, invited not by the UK Government, but by a foundry workers’ union in Manchester (honouring his former job). Arriving in Manchester, Gagarin toured the city in an open topped car to crowds of people standing in the pouring rain, since, as he said, “the people have come to see me”. Only then was his popularity noticed by the government and he was pulled down to London to meet the Queen and Prime Minister MacMillan [10].

After his fame, he became deputy director of the Cosmonaut Training Centre, getting himself fit enough to return to Space. However, after Vladimir Komarov’s death in April 1976 during a space mission, the authorities banning Gagarin from space travel (since he was too precious to risk blowing up), although he was allowed to be a flight instructor of jet aircraft, leading to his death in March 1968 at the age of just 34 [10].

Gagarin in Warsaw, Poland, in 1961 on his world tour

Gagarin in Warsaw, Poland, in 1961 on his world tour. Credit: Nieznany/Unknown

Space Race after Gagarin

Three weeks later, Alan Shepard, Jr. became the second human in Space in a fully televised launch of the Mercury-Redstone 3, staying up for just 15 minutes. These flights then paved the way for five more Mercury launches and NASA’s Gemini and Apollo missions, as well as the Soviet’s Voskhod and Soyuz missions [11].

NASA’s Gemini Programme, happening between 1965 and 1966 (just 1 year after ADAS was founded), helped test lots of things in Space never done before, from spacewalks to docking spacecraft [12]. This programme then led NASA to the Apollo Programme, taking place between 1968 and 1972.

Apollo was NASA’s way of outdoing the Soviets’ win in 1961 of getting the first human into Outer Space, carrying out 11 manned spaceflights and moonwalks, including the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7 (1968); the first orbit of the Moon, Apollo 8 (1968); the first Moon landing, Apollo 11 (1969); and the last manned Moon landing to date: Apollo 17, backing in 1972 [13]. However, the samples collected by the astronauts on the Moon are still being analysed today, with many discoveries having been made, and many more still to happen.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon as part of Apollo 11

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon as part of Apollo 11. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, the USSR had their Voskhod Programme (1960-1963), with only two missions, but still getting the first spaceflight with more than one person into orbit, as well as the first spacewalk (with Alexey Leonov spending just 12 minutes walking in the voids of Space). However, even that had some problems, with Leonov having to vent some air from his suit to fit into the airlock (although he did have a suicide pill incase that didn’t work) [14].

Then came the Soyuz Programme, still in operation today, with its first manned mission being April 1967, attempting a docking as seen in NASA’s Gemini Programme, but failing, instead taking them to 1969 to achieve. It was then used as a transporter, carrying the a lunar lander into low-Earth orbit in November 1970, and sending the cosmonauts into Space to build the Salyut space stations, the Mir space station, and later the International Space Station (ISS). As well as this, the Soyuz has been a beacon for international cooperation, like the ISS, ferrying crews from five space agencies (NASA, Roscosomos, JAXA, ESA and CSA) from Earth to the ISS, outcompeting the less safe Space Shuttle programme: NASA’s way of building the ISS, sending satellites like the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, and bringing people to the ISS, although it did have a tendency to blow up, leading to its retirement in 2011 [15].

The International Space Station

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Many more manned space missions are planned in the future, hoping to shed new light on the mysteries of our Universe whilst pushing life’s capabilities to see what we can do. However, all this wouldn’t be able to happen if the continuous battle of the Space Race didn’t take place, with Gagarin’s flight marking the very beginning of this fast and exciting journey of innovation and discovery.

by George Abraham, ADAS Member

Click here for the previous news article

Click here for the next news article

Click here to watch the BBC's report of human spaceflight's 60th anniversary, with footage of the launch and an interview with the granddaughter who was planting potatoes when Gagarin landed in her field.

Click here to watch the BBC's archive report from the day the news of Gagarin's return from Space to see the reaction of the public

Click here to listen to some interesting accounts from people who took part in different events throughout the Space Race

Click here to read another article, focussing more on the space stations, marking 20 years of continuous human occupation of Space.

Click here to read another article, looking in part at what advanced of lunar science have happened and are going to happen after the Apollo missions.



  1. "The Space Race". History. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  2. "Спутник". Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  3. "Space Race Timeline". Royal Museums Greenwich. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  4. "Yuri Gagarin: 60 years since first man blasted into space". Al Jazeera. Archived from the original on 16th March 2021.

  5. "Klushino". Google Maps. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  6. "Восток". Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  7. "Around the World in 108 Minutes". BBC Sky at Night Magazine April 2021 (ISBN 9771745986065 04>) p. 60-65

  8. "Radio Astronomy Podcast: 60 years since Yuri Gagarin's flight". YouTube, BBC Sky at Night Magazine. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  9. "Spacewatch: 60 years after Gagarin first 'all-civilian' mission is in works". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  10. "Yuri Gagarin: the spaceman who came in from the cold". BBC Future. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  11. "Early Manned Spaceflight". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  12. "What was the Gemini Program?". NASA. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  13. "What was the Apollo Program?" NASA. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  14. "The Voskhod Programme?" Royal Air Force Museum. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  15. "Space Shuttle Program". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

  16. "Yuri Gagarin: The first man in space - BBC News". YouTube, BBC News. Archived from the original on 16th April 2021.

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