On April 12, 1961, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in a rocket the size of a Soviet high-rise. The ship entered outer space; Gagarin orbited the Earth once in 108 minutes before parachuting to safety in the Vostok 1 capsule, which without its rocket boosters was roughly the size of a hot tub. Prior to his flight, it was not known whether astronauts’ lungs would work in zero gravity, whether they’d be able to swallow or whether their blood would pump at all. But Gagarin launched anyway, and became the first man in space. To say he had balls would be a grave “преуменьшение” — an understatement.
The Soviets awarded him with every military and humanitarian medal under the sun; meanwhile, as Gagarin began his celebrity world tour, American scientists scrambled to understand how a country “incapable of building a decent clock radio” (according to sociopolitical cartoonist Berke Breathed) could have so thoroughly beaten them to the punch.
Tuesday, exactly 50 years later, NASA assigned final resting places to its remaining space shuttles. As Russia celebrated its short-lived legacy in space, we ended ours: Atlantis, which will be the last to fly this June, is headed to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; Endeavor is off to the California Science Center; and Discovery will be put to bed at the Smithsonian.
A lot happened in those 50 years. In the first decade after Gagarin’s flight, we put two men on the moon. The Apollo program ran until 1975, and included five additional lunar missions that put 12 more American astronauts up on the rock. These are the only occasions on which humans have landed on another celestial body. Space shuttle testing began in 1981—since then there have been 133 total missions, 132 of them with successful launches and 131 with successful re-entries (Challenger exploded on Jan. 29, 1986, Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003).
The science of flight and space exploration has always advanced in unwieldy, unpredictable bursts. The Wright brothers achieved controlled, heavier-than-air flight in 1903; ten years later we had ace pilots killing each other en masse in World War I. The first jet flew in 1939; the Boeing 707 made commercial air travel a reality in the early 1950s, heralding the beginning of “the Jet Age.”
But then we hit a wall. These days, we fly on the same jets as our parents and grandparents did when they were young, a problem recently showcased when an aging Boeing 737 operated by Southwest saw its ceiling rip open mid-flight. The closest we’ve come to flight innovation this side of the Cold War was the Concorde — a dream that ended in flames on a runway in France in July of 2000, killing all 109 on board.
The future of space exploration now faces the same stagnation. After 50 years of stunning advances, the pace of advancement has leveled off. With more immediate financial issues at hand, Americans are understandably less than thrilled about contributing their taxes to NASA’s $19 billion budget. Faster-than-light travel seems just as distant as it was when we first reached the moon, and there are cheaper ways to boost patriotic morale than a trip to Mars. So begins a fatal Catch-22: we can’t advance without funding, but we can’t justify funding without advances.
So is that it? Are we done with space? Or are we just on a little break, until someone, somewhere, finds a way to propel us places where there’s more to do than collect rocks? I hope it’s the latter. In just 50 years, we approached the coolest ideals science fiction could dish out at an inspiring rate … then watched them recede into the azure void of “Star Trek” actor Chris Pine’s Eyes (an official term that yields 1,490,000 results on Google).
Our best hope for creating the world of Captain Kirk resides now with private enterprise. In December, PayPal founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first company to orbit and recover their own spacecraft; Sir Richard Branson’s ambitiously named “Virgin Galactic” is building a spaceport in New Mexico that will launch curious billionaires on space vacations. It may take some time to escape this novelty phase, but I believe private space tourism, however scientifically useless it may seem now, is the answer. The businessmen participating in these endeavors have two things NASA and its Russian counterparts have lost since the era of Yuri Gagarin: ludicrous amounts of money and, more importantly, the kind of wild idealism that defies rational caution and safety. And some day, in a lab funded by a starry-eyed CEO, we’ll discover the next step — and even the Commies would be proud of that.
Riley Scripps Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.