A Brief History
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut (their version of astronaut) Yuri Gagarin was sent into orbit around the Earth aboard Vostok 1, becoming the first human being to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” and voyage where no man had gone before, Outer Space.
Humans have looked up with wonder at the Sun, the Moon, the stars and planets beyond the clouds and wondered what is really up there? In the past, with no better explanation, stories were made up about celestial gods, the Moon made of Green Cheese, flaming chariots and all sorts of goofy things. Once telescopes and astronomy were invented to take a scientific look at space beyond Earth, scientists such as Copernicus (Poland) and Galileo (Italy) realized the Earth travels around the Sun, and the Moon travels around the Earth. Orbits of planets were nest, but all this was suppressed by religious leaders that could not accept that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, because if Earth was not the center of the Universe, Mankind might not be the focal point of a Creation made by a God.
Despite severe hampering by the Catholic Church (mainly), scientists made enough progress combined with engineering technology that by the end of the 1950’s space travel seemed well within the grasp of Man. Sputnik became the first object launched into Space (orbit around the Earth) by the Soviets in 1957, and later in 1957 a dog named Laika became the first living creature sent into space by Man (again, Soviets).
Outer Space is defined as the area beyond the atmosphere of the Earth between the celestial bodies. Outer Space is a vacuum, with a sort of plasma of Hydrogen and Helium, but little else. The arbitrary boundary given as the beginning of Outer Space is usually recognized as an altitude of 100 kilometers above the surface of the Earth (62 miles up). It is cold up there, with a temperature of around 454 below zero Fahrenheit.
Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet pilot born in Russia in 1934, and despite surviving the dangerous first mission to space, was killed in a 1968 crash of a fighter plane he was piloting. Vostok 1 was the only space flight Gagarin ever made.
Since Gagarin’s historic flight, the United States has sent astronauts to the Moon and back safely, but all other manned space flights have been within normal Earth orbit. The next big step in space travel is to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit, roughly 930,000 miles from Earth where Earth’s gravity can no longer keep objects in orbit. (The Moon is about 239,000 miles away.) The next likely destination for space travel would be Mars, but the problems with making that a reality are well beyond current capabilities.
People are curious, and the desire to know the unknown is a powerful urge. We have spent billions of dollars and significant lives lost in the quest for the exploration of space. Question for students (and subscribers): Is this quest worth it? Should we spend billions of dollars on space? (The US spends around .5% of our budget on NASA, close to $20 billion a year in recent years. This does not count private investment and money spent by other countries.) Please share your thoughts about the space program and how much money we should or should not spend on space exploration in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bizony, Piers and Jamie Doran. Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin. Walker Books, 2011.