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Shuttle against Earth backdrop Space exploration has changed significantly since Yuri Gagarin's first journey into space 50 years ago. (Rendering—Stocktrek Images/Corbis)

50 Years in Space

As the first human went into orbit a half-century ago, the world watched in awe

By Tyrus Cukavac | April 15 , 2011
<p>Alan Shepard was the first American to launch into space—less than a month after Yuri Gagarin's first flight. (NASA)</p>

Alan Shepard was the first American to launch into space—less than a month after Yuri Gagarin's first flight. (NASA)

Fifty years ago on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old Russian pilot, became the first human to go into outer space. He orbited, or circled, Earth for 108 minutes in a tiny metal capsule called Vostok 1—a huge breakthrough for humankind. Less than a month later, on May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American and the second human to enter outer space.

The Space Race had begun. This intense competition between the United States and Russia, then known as the Soviet Union, fueled space exploration for the next generation.

Shepard had originally been scheduled to launch in October 1960, but technical problems delayed the mission. The United States soon had bigger plans in mind: a journey to the moon.

Since then, space explorers have reached many milestones. U.S. astronauts have landed on the moon, and robots have explored the surface of Mars. The former rivalry between the U.S. and Russia has become cooperation; the two countries worked together with several other nations to create the International Space Station—a research laboratory that orbits Earth.

The United Nations has declared April 12 to be the International Day of Human Space Flight. Yet the future of space exploration has never been more uncertain. NASA, the U.S. space agency, is ending its 30-year-old space shuttle program. A planned return to the moon has been scrapped. NASA’s latest budget is $240 million lower than that in 2010.

However, these changes might simply signal a shift in space development. President Barack Obama has challenged private companies to take the lead in space exploration. Some, such as Bigelow Aerospace, have launched prototype (test) inflatable habitats into space. These might someday lead to easier and less expensive ways to keep humans in space.

Companies like Virgin Galactic aim to provide transportation for ordinary citizens someday and are currently selling seats for $200,000! Other companies, like Space X, plan to transport cargo to the International Space Station, picking up the slack left by the retired shuttle program.

Gagarin’s historic journey took humankind closer to the stars and captured the imaginations of people from all across the planet. He later wrote of the beauty he had seen from the spacecraft: “Rays were blazing through the atmosphere of the Earth, the horizon became bright orange, gradually passing into all the colors of the rainbow . . . What an indescribable gamut of colors!”

What new sights will the world’s next great space explorer discover?

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