It was fifty years ago today,
Major Yuri taught man how to play,
We’ve been going up and down for a while,
And it’s guaranteed to raise a smile…
Okay, Lennon & McCartney I am not, and Major Yuri Gagarin was no Sergeant Pepper. But on April 12, 1961, the USSR launched Yuri Gagarin to become the first person in space and the first person to orbit the Earth — a feat that the US, in the person of John Glenn, would not duplicate until February 20, 1962. (The US did launch two manned but sub-orbital flights before that, Shepard on May 5, 1961 and Grissom on July 21, 1961.)
It kicked the Space Race into high gear. President Kennedy would make his “before this decade is out” speech on May 25, three weeks after Shepard’s flight. (His “we choose to go to the Moon…not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech came later, and we seem to have lost much of that spirit.)
A lot has happened in that fifty years. We sent men around the Moon less than eight years later, landing them on there just eight years, three months and eight days after Gagarin’s flight. (Question: does anyone here realistically think we could land men on the Moon eight years from today? Granted, the Apollo program (in different form) was already on the books back then, but we still had to invent most of the technology.)
On the upside, we’ve had people living and working in orbit almost continuously since the early 1980s, with Salyut 7, then Mir, and then ISS. Recently SpaceX, a private space company, successfully demonstrated a space capsule (Dragon) far superior to Gagarin’s Vostok or Glenn’s (and Shepard’s) Mercury, more the equivalent of a souped-up Apollo Command Module or Salyut. It was an unmanned flight, but it was pressurized (and, in an irreverent tribute to Monty Python, contained a wheel of cheese as the “passenger”) and survived reentry.
Could we get back to the Moon in eight years? Maybe, if somebody offered the contract to SpaceX, or perhaps China.
My friend and fellow author Brad Torgersen is putting together an anthology of original stories, RETRO, themed around different directions the space program could have taken if things had gone a little differently. Russia on the Moon first? Mars by the 1980s? A base on the Moon? I’m contributing both a story and a non-fiction article, and I’m looking forward to reading what the other invitees come up with. Stay tuned for a announcement of the, ahem, launch date.