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Today, Tuesday 12 April 2011, sees the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight in 1961, and the 30th anniversary of the first launch of the space shuttle in 1981.
I do remember Gagarin’s single orbit of the Earth all those years ago, but at the time I didn’t realise the magnitude of the event in terms of human history. To use the old cliché, humankind had finally left its planetary cradle, even though it was only for a matter of less than 2 hours. Similarly from a political viewpoint, it was huge. The United States was still wounded, after being beaten in the race to orbit an unmanned satellite by Sputnik 1, and now Gagarin’s flight just served to twist the knife. It was this momentous event that spurred John Kennedy to make his inspirational speech, to throw down the challenge to the Soviet Union of a race ‘to land a man on the moon before this decade is out’! The rest is now history, and for me a distant memory. Getting back to Gagarin’s flight, and from the perspective of 50 years of experience of human spaceflight, I think we tend to forget just how courageous he was in offering himself for this first flight into the unknown. We honour his memory and bravery today.
The Shuttle’s first launch three decades ago, in 1981, was for me one of those landmark events that somehow spurs the memory to recall exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time. For me, the 12th of April 1981 was a glorious spring day, during which my wife and I enjoyed the climb of a peak in the remote north-west Highlands of Scotland. However, unlike Gagarin’s flight, I did sense the historic character of the day’s events, and resolved to find out how the first historic flight of Shuttle Columbia had gone at the end of that glorious day. The flight heralded the opening on the Shuttle programme, and I recall a great wave of optimism in the media, with stories of 50 Shuttle flights per year by the end of the decade! The subsequent history of the programme is well documented, however. Despite the high cost of operations, the programme has overall been hugely successful, but also overshadowed by the human cost of desperate tragedies. Today we remember these highs and lows, especially the personal human sacrifice of 14 shuttle programme astronauts. Coming full circle, this year sees the retirement of this remarkable machine, again an event with a personal dimension – the commencement and retirement of the Shuttle’s space career have coincided closely with my own career in the space industry and academia! Consequently, like an old friend, it’s always been there. Note from the picture of Shuttle Columbia, awaiting first launch, that in those days the whole Shuttle stack was gleaming white. At that time the external tank was painted, until it was realised that sacrificing the mass of paintwork would give a slightly improved payload performance.
Graham Swinerd - I hope to use this page to highlight current major events in space and spacececraft.