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Looking back at quarter centruy of manned space exploration

``Here we go.'' ``Roger, liftoff and the clock is started.''

These sentences -- the first spoken in Russian, the second in English -- seem plain and matter-of-fact today. But 25 years ago, they were the sound of high adventure.

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Beside the accompanying photographs of the spaceflight pioneers are the opening paragraphs of The Christian Science Monitor's reports of their exploits. Reread today, they seem hyperbolic. But, at the time, they accurately reflected the excitement that electrified the world.

For the first time ever, human beings had ventured at least tentatively into space, and the prospect for humanity's destiny had expanded to embrace the Solar System and, perhaps eventually, even the stars.

When Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin left what the Soviets would soon be calling their Cosmodrome on April 12, 1961, he became the first person literally to see Earth in a planetary perspective. His one-orbit, 108-minute flight seems insignificant today. But it was the never-to-be-forgotten first step that prepared the way for others.

Then, on May 5, Alan Shepard hopped off a launch pad at Cape Canaveral -- now known to hordes of tourists as Spaceport USA. His 15-minute suborbital flight was even less venturesome than Gagarin's cautious orbit. But it, too, opened the way for achievements that, until then, had seemed the stuff of science fiction -- astronauts cavorting on the Moon or repairing satellites in earth orbit.

The United States and Soviet Union were then competing to show the world their spaceflight prowess. Russia was ahead, having launched the first satellites as well as the first manned mission. The US, striving to catch up, had set itself the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth within less than a decade. Other industrially advanced people, such as those of Western Europe and Japan, could only look on with wonder. The race ended when the US attained its goal and the Soviets scrapped their Moon program, refusing to admit that they had ever been racing.

All this now seems quaintly quixotic. Europe and Japan are emerging as first-class space powers in their own right. The Soviet Union has followed its own strategy to establish what promises to be the first permanently manned outpost in space. And the US is in the midst of a soul-searching review of its manned spaceflight program.

Nevertheless, basic insights and questions that emerged 25 years ago still challenge space planners today.

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It was obvious from the start that the Moon race was a dead-end. Space strategists knew that opening the new frontier meant first establishing a working infrastructure in low earth orbit. This would include both manned facilities (space stations) and unmanned factories or supply depots. It also meant developing relatively cheap and reliable Earth-to-orbit transportation.

That was the insight. It raised the twin questions of how to establish that infrastructure and what goals it should serve.

The Soviets opted first to develop a space station. Such a program would also serve such goals as learning how human beings adapt to extended periods of weightlessness, developing techniques for manufacturing electronic materials on orbit, and exploring scientific and military uses of a space station. This has led to the recently orbited MIR satellite, which seems to be the nucleus of a permanently manned station. Now the Soviets are working on the transportation system. They are expected to have a shuttle comparable to the US shuttle flying by the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the US took the opposite approach when it opted to develop the shuttle. Only in 1984 did it make a commitment to a manned space station. The shuttle, with its European-supplied Spacelab, has also allowed investigation of space science and space manufacturing. But the United States has not yet had much experience with long-duration spaceflight.

So far neither country has made any commitment to long-term goals, although there is talk of returning to the Moon or exploring Mars. But as their planners consider such things it's worth remembering another insight that emerged 25 years ago. Gagarin and Shepard opened a frontier that will continue to challenge humanity. It is only a question of how fast we will develop it, not of whether we will do so. Milestones in space exploration as reported in The Christian Science Monitor April 12, 1961

Considered apart from national rivalries, the successful orbiting and return of the Soviet cosmonaut, the first man in space, is a magnificent achievement on behalf of all mankind.

Maj. Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin's satellite flight is a culmination of the development begun when men dropped superstition and magic and turned to reason and objective study to understand and deal with their environment. . . .

[The flight] was completely predictable on the basis of previous Soviet performances and announced intentions. It likewise was to be expected that the United States would most likely place second in the race to put a man into orbit. . . .

The Soviets have been pushing their space program hard for a number of years. The United States began to take such a program seriously only after the first sputnik was launched in the fall of 1957. Before that time, space flight was generally considered a wild idea in the United States, not worth the expense of a substantial national effort. . . .

-- Robert C. Cowen, natural science editor of The Christian Science Monitor May 5, 1961 Cape Canaveral, Fla.

This was a great day for the United States!

There wasn't a dry eye or a calm spectator here at Cape Canaveral, and possibly in all America, as Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, in a beautiful, well-timed, and magnificently executed flight into space became the first American to cross the threshold of space.

Hundreds of hardened newsmen gathered at the press site on the Cape, and not a little disgruntled at the ``scrub'' of the original flight Tuesday, choked up visibly as they recorded minute-by-minute Navy Commander Shepard's great adventure.

As the Mercury-Redstone left Pad 5 after nearly two hours of delay, a chant of ``go-go-go'' swept over the bleachers.

When the escape tower was jettisoned only seconds after take-off indicating that spaceman Shepard was on his way safely and securely, a cheer rose, echoing the mighty roar of the Redstone as it climbed majestically over the Cape and down the Atlantic missile range. . . .

-- Neal Stanford, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor

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