On a bright spring day in April 1961, a young Russian pilot climbed aboard a new type of vehicle – a manned spacecraft. He was about to attempt what no one had tried before. A former ballistic missile, adapted for carrying a man but not totally safe from error, was going to blast him on an eight-minute ride from Earth into space. For 108 minutes he would fly around his home planet, then endure, inside his protective spacecraft, the fiery heat of re-entry, before ejecting to descend by parachute to his native soil. In those 108 minutes, Yuri Gagarin moved from obscurity to one of the most famous names in human history. No matter how many people follow his trail from Earth, he will always be the first, the pioneer, the one who took mankind’s first step out of the cradle. On any listing of most space experience in the 45 years since that flight, Gagarin’s name will appear at the very bottom, but his achievement, his courage and his very persona will forever fly higher than any record book can show.
In the Cold War race for technical and national supremacy between America and the Soviet Union, their Arms Race spawned another race, to place the first person into space. Once that was done, their eyes turned towards our nearest solar neighbour, the Moon. This time, the Americans would win the race, but they would also come out losers. Though other missions under the Vostok, Voskhod, Mercury and Gemini programmes were planned it is probable that nothing more would have been achieved that could not have been achieved by later programmes, probably far more safely.
America’s triumph with Apollo was short lived. In the spirit of determination and achievement that Kennedy’s famous speech had engendered in the American psyche, great plans were laid for what would happen after the Moon landing goal had been achieved. The potential for extended duration missions in Earth orbit, orbital research and development flights, and reaching further targets was all lost in a wave of public apathy and political debate on the value of Apollo lunar programme once Apollo 11 had achieved Kennedy’s goal. An expanded lunar exploration programme was abandoned, even with some of the hardware built and paid for. That hardware was placed in museums or left to rot, bygone icons of a forgotten era. America had other more pressing goals at home to think about that seemed to better justify, or at least consumed, the tax dollar.
For the Soviets, losing the Moon race was painful, but they turned their attention to a new target, the creation of a long term space station. Over the next thirty years, their programme and understanding of what it took to spend significant amounts of time in space grew, culminating with the Mir programme. Mir remained in orbit 15 years, and was permanently occupied for almost ten of them. Successive crews battled with shortages, failures and set backs, as well as huge success and hard-won achievement in stretching the human space experience from days and weeks, to months and years. If Apollo was the shining star of the first era of pioneering manned space exploration, then surely Mir was as bright a star in the second period as humans truly began to understand how to live and work in space.
Over in the United States America turned to the Space Shuttle. As with earlier programmes, this was envisaged as just one part pf a large space infrastructure. Grandiose plans included Earth and lunar orbital space bases, a lunar base, manned flights to Mars and even hotels and factories in orbit, all foreseen long before Shuttle ever flew. When it did, the reality of what it could actually do became readily apparent. And dreams remained dreams. The Shuttle could fly short research missions, capture, repair and redeploy space satellites, and fly mixed cargos into and out of space, but it could not do it as regularly or as cheaply as once thought. Shuttle could not reduce the cost per kilogram of reaching orbit, fly every two weeks, and launch everything America, and most of the world wanted to assign to it. And with no orbiting platform to deliver this cargo to, it became little more than an expensive and risky space truck. The loss of Challenger and her crew of seven was the final straw. Soon the commercial customers and military chiefs backed away from Shuttle as a new goal was set – a space station so large that it would need an international group of partners to build, support, and pay for it.
Space Station Freedom was another dream born from those visions of huge space cities in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was one thing aiming for a space station of this complexity, however, but quite another to build and pay for it. Costs, complications and problems grew to bursting point and by the early 1990s, the Space Shuttle, the space station, and even NASA itself, looked in dire straits. In Russia, years of papering over the cracks in both the space programme and the national economy finally caught up with them and the once-mighty Soviet Union and most of the communist world collapsed in an expensive and tragic mess.
Born from the turmoil was a new cooperative programme in space. Russia would join what was now the International Space Station programme. There was still a decade or so of hard work and sometimes fraught discussions, but one thing the ISS programme has shown, as anyone involved in it will underline, is that international teamwork and cooperation can achieve such a global and extensive goal. And the Shuttle could finally prove that it was capable of the task originally envisioned for it way back in those grandiose plans – supplying and constructing a space station. The loss of Columbia in 2003 has dealt a final blow to a Shuttle programme that has been flying for 25 years, although the infrastructure created by ISS will keep the programme going for a while longer.
By the 45th year of human space flight, the Shuttle was on the road to its second recovery, the crew complement of ISS was restored, tourists were paying a lot of money for the chance of making one short flight around the Earth, and a new player had entered the scene – China. The success of ISS is that it has been “international” and perhaps that is the way forward. Large national space programmes are relics of the past and cooperation across the globe in space may help with cooperation across the globe for more terrestrial goals. This book therefore records the trail from Gagarin to this 45th year; the successes and the failures, the milestones and the tragedies. We hope that it provides a handy reference of what has gone before as we stand on the edge of what could be about to happen.
As the 50th anniversaries of these first space flights approach between 2011 and 2021 – the first manned space flights, first EVAs, first docking, first lunar flights, first extended flights, and first space station – the future of human space flight seems to be forward-looking once again. Though the flight path may be unsteady, contingencies and back up plans have to be prepared, and mission objectives may change, Gagarin’s trail is still bright and strong. And, as he said at the moment his rocket left Earth for the stars… “Poyekhali! … Off we go!”