A brief look at the history (and future) of humans in space

On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to cross into outer space. Today, the International Space Station is a permanent outpost in the heavens and space tourism beckons, writes Lauren Fuge.

On 12 April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach outer space.
On 12 April 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach outer space.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Humanity made its first giant leap into the void on 12 April 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to journey into space. As his diving-helmet-shaped Vostok 1 capsule launched off the ground, Gagarin famously ditched his formal script and shouted “Poyekhali!

This phrase, meaning “Let’s go” or “We’re off”, was a fitting way to embark on the age of human space flight. Gagarin’s orbit around the Earth flung humans off the rocky surface of our planet, through the tenuous blue line of our atmosphere, and out into the unknown vastness of space.

The desire to journey out into the universe is as old as humanity, but not until the twentieth century did our technology catch up with our imaginations. Rocket research began in the 1920s and accelerated during the Second World War; in the late 1940s, both America and the Soviet Union used captured German scientists and technology to launch their space programs.

When Gagarin made his first flight, the Soviet Union had already crashed a spacecraft on the Moon and put a satellite into Earth orbit, while the Americans had sent the first hominid into space: Ham the chimpanzee, who showed it was possible to complete simple tasks like pushing levers while in space.

Ham’s adventure paved the way for the first American man in space: Alan Shepard on 5 May 1961, less than a month after Gagarin.

The Vostok 1 space capsule that took Yuri Gagarin once around the Earth.
The Vostok 1 space capsule that took Yuri Gagarin once around the Earth.
SSPL / Getty Images

Then came a game changer: US President John F. Kennedy announced that America would put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s – effectively shifting the “finish line” of the space race. But both sides still had a lot to learn about spaceflight to reach that lofty goal.

Between 1961 and 1963, NASA’s Project Mercury launched six manned spacecraft into Earth orbit, and the Soviet Union also sent six humans into space. Both nations were attempting to learn how the human body functions in space, and how humans and spacecraft could be brought safely back down to Earth.

Project Mercury’s successor, Gemini, became the testing ground for the Moon missions, sending multiple astronauts into space – two per capsule – and testing their ability to fly for up to two weeks. Crucially, the program also investigated how spacecraft could dock while in orbit, and strove to perfect re-entry and landing.

For a while the Soviet Union seemed to be pulling ahead: they launched the first three-person crew, performed the first spacewalks, and orbited and landed unmanned spacecraft on the Moon, taking the first photos of its surface.

But of course, America crossed the finish line first, setting foot on the Moon with Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969.

Even though the race was won, the exploration continued.

A total of 12 men successfully walked on the Moon over the next few years, all Americans, and then both nations dropped their sights to low Earth orbit.

The first space station, the Soviet Salyut 1, was launched in 1971, and two years later NASA’s Skylab followed.

These space stations kick-started an era of human outposts in space – astronauts were not only making short flights, but also living and working outside Earth’s atmosphere for extended periods of time. Space stations allowed scientific and technical experiments to be conducted in microgravity, ranging from astronomical observations to medical experiments on humans.

By 1986 the Soviet Union had launched Mir, which outlived the USSR itself and operated as a microgravity research station right up until 2001. It was occupied for 12.5 years of those 15, becoming the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit.

Before Mir fell back down to Earth, an ambitious new program was launched: the International Space Station (ISS). This massive collaboration between five space agencies (NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, Japan’s JAXA, the pan-European ESA, and Canada’s CSA) was assembled over a period of 13 years from 1998 to 2011. Thanks to the ISS, human beings are now living in space every day, doing research that can’t be achieved on Earth. Everything studied will provide valuable lessons for future space explorations, helping humans reach far beyond the gravitational embrace of our own planet.

Other nations have also been getting their own piece of space pie. China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, operated from 2011 to 2015 and fell back down to Earth in April 2018. A second testbed station, Tiangong-2, is still in operation.

Human spaceflight is still prohibitively expensive. It’s likely that in the future, spaceflight will increasingly be funded privately – which means that pilots, scientists and engineers won’t be the only ones with the chance to travel into space.

The first ever space tourist was US entrepreneur Dennis Tito, who reportedly paid a whopping US$20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001. He was taken aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which – in collaboration with the company Space Adventures — took seven space tourists between 2001 and 2009.

Since then, space tourism aboard Soyuz has stalled in favour of giving those seats to expedition crews, but other companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Blue Origin are working to get civilians back up in space. Like any risky enterprise, their efforts are marred by failures, but there’s a high chance they will eventually overcome the technological and commercial challenges.

Others have plans to launch tourists into very high but still suborbital flights, giving them several minutes of weightlessness and an incredible view of the curve of the Earth; to build hotels in low Earth orbit; and to run commercial journeys to the Moon. With estimated prices ranging from $20,000 to $40 million, these adventures would be reserved for the ultra-rich – at least in the foreseeable future.

For those who are looking to travel a bit further afield, there are both government and private funded plans to get humans back to the Moon and, controversially, to Mars, though these trips are still a few years away.

We’ve made a lot of progress since Yuri Gagarin rang in the age of manned spaceflight with “Poyekhali!”, but there’s still a lot further to go.

A portrait of Yuri Gagarin adorns a Moscow subway carriage in 2017.
A portrait of Yuri Gagarin adorns a Moscow subway carriage in 2017.
Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / Getty Images

Lauren Fuge is an Adelaide-based author and science communicator.
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luna_2
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ham_(chimpanzee)
  3. https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/relax-you-probably-won-t-get-hit-by-a-plummeting-chinese-space-station-next-month
  4. http://www.spaceadventures.com/
  5. https://www.virgingalactic.com/
  6. http://www.spacex.com/
  7. https://www.blueorigin.com/
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