It's hard to imagine what Yuri Gagarin was thinking on April 12, 1961. He was about to do what no human had done before: enter the heavens. What would he see? And would he survive?
Gagarin's 108-minute flight did more than carry him once around the Earth. It launched a new era in human history.
A new film released on YouTube has meticulously recreated that first orbit
. Every six weeks, the International Space Station passes over a similar route at the exact time of Gagarin's flight. The film says it shows Earth the same way he saw it 50 years ago.
So what have we achieved since?
If you're reading this, you probably already know the highlights of spaceflight. So instead, I want to share some of the more surprising bits of space trivia.
Russia sent its first woman into space in 1963. That's 20 years before American Sally Ride. Another fun fact about Valentina Tereshkova: her daughter was the first child born to two space travelers.
The first-ever space tourist, Dennis Tito, was supposed to visit the Mir space station. He signed a contract in June 2000. But in December, the Russians decided to de-orbit Mir. Tito is seen as a trailblazer for waging a public battle with NASA for access to ISS instead.
NASA launched a probe to Pluto in January 2006. By August, Pluto's planetary status had been demoted to "dwarf." It's a nine year trip.
Sotheby's is auctioning off a Vostok capsule
... the only one outside of Russia. It carried test-dummy Ivan Ivanovich and canine cosmonaut Zvezdochka... 20 days before Gagarin's flight.
That brings us to another important April 12th. A brand new type of spacecraft –the shuttle– blasted off on that date in 1981. Columbia lifted off exactly twenty years after Yuri Gagarin's first flight.
And now, thirty years later, the U.S. shuttle program is set to end. That means Russia will be the only country with the ability to send crews into space. Moscow has recently stepped up funding its space program. It is builidng a new cosmodrome (one it won't have to rent from Kazakhstan). And Russian scientists are currently carrying out a mock mission to Mars.
Only one other country has traveled to space independently. China sent its first taikonaut into space in 2003. Local media report 20 launches
are scheduled for this year. On Sunday, China successfully launched a satellite as part of its new navigation and positioning system.
Space explorers are frequently associated with the U.S. and Russia. But they have come from more than two dozen countries. Gagarin blazed the path for all of them.
Now, who wants to bet on which country will be the first to Mars?