Highlights from first 50 years in space

Fifty years ago this week, on April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Since he blazed a trail into orbit, more than 500 humans have explored the final frontier. Here are some of the significant moments from the first half century of manned spaceflight.

Yuri Gagarin on his way to launch
Yuri Gagarin on his way to launch (NASA)

April 12, 1961: Yuri’s own historic flight into orbit aboard Vostok 1 nearly ended in disaster. His craft spun wildly as it re-entered the atmosphere after cables failed to detach. Luckily the wires burned through and the capsule returned to Earth with Yuri ejecting as planned to parachute to the ground. (Tragically Yuri died less than seven years later in March 1968 when his MiG training jet crashed.)

May 5, 1961: The USA raced to catch up. Alan Shepard blasted off on a 15 minute 22 second trip in his Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7. He was on a short fuse himself, cursing repeated delays in the countdown. He snapped: “Why don’t you light the damned candle, ‘cause I’m ready to go!”

February 20, 1962: John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth making three loops on Friendship 7 before splashing down into the Atlantic. Glenn, who years later became a senator, returned into space aboard a shuttle in 1998 at the age of 77, becoming the oldest astronaut.

June 16, 1963: Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space aboard Vostok 6. It was said she got seasick and was uncommunicative with mission control.

March 18, 1965: Alexei Leonov became the first person to walk in space, leaving his Soviet two-man Voskhod 2 capsule to spend 12 minutes outside. Scarily, he found he could not get back inside the capsule and had to release some air from his spacesuit to fit back inside the airlock.

June 3, 1965: The US had to play catch-up once again, and NASA’s Ed White made a space walk from his two-man Gemini craft.

January 27, 1967: Ed White, along with fellow NASA veterans Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee were killed when fire ripped through the pure oxygen atmosphere inside their Apollo 1 capsule as they rehearsed at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, for a trip to the Moon.

April 23, 1968: Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when the parachute of his Soyuz 1 capsule failed and he crashed into the Ural mountains.

Earthrise seen from Apollo 8
Earthrise seen from Apollo 8 (NASA)

December 21, 1968: NASA’s Apollo 8 makes the first manned mission to the Moon, carrying Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. Launched by a giant Saturn V rocket, it sent home a Christmas message of hope with a now iconic image of the blue Earth rising above the lunar horizon.

July 20, 1969: History was made as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the Moon in Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module. Neil was first to step outside in the early hours of July 21, UK time. Third astronaut Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the command module.

April 13, 1970: The world held its breath after an explosion aboard Apollo 13 as it was on its way to the Moon and commander Jim Lovell uttered the immortal words “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” A lunar landing was aborted and minds concentrated on bringing Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise safely home instead. After looping around the Moon, and using a string of improvised techniques, the crew safely splashed down in the Pacific on April 17.

February 6, 1971: Alan Shepard, who had been NASA’s first man in space, became the first man to play golf on the Moon, using an improvised club and a couple of smuggled balls on Apollo 14’s mission.

June 29, 1971: Russia’s Soyuz 11 spacecraft was departing from the Soviets’ first space station, Salyut 1, when tragedy struck. An explosive bolt caused a pressure valve to blow. Air escaped from the capsule and cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov were suffocated.

July 31, 1971: Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin became the first astronauts to drive a “car” on the moon – the four-wheeled Lunar Roving Vehicle. They left it behind when they came home.

July 17, 1975: After the thawing of relations between the Americans and Soviet Union, an historic link-up happened in orbit between an Apollo command module and a Russian Soyuz. Three NASA astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts exchanged handshakes.

May 1991: Food scientist Helen Sharman, who invented Mars ice cream, became Britain’s first astronaut, carried aloft on a Soyuz to Russia’s new Mir space station. Her mission was intended to be sponsored by UK businesses but the Soviet Union ended up footing the bill.

June 25, 1997: British-born NASA astronaut Michael Foale was aboard Mir when a Russian Progress cargo ship collided with the space station causing it to spin wildly. Foale coolly tracked the motion of the stars to help mission control to stabilise the orbiting outpost.

July 11, 1979: NASA’s first space station Skylab crashed back to Earth after more than six years in orbit. Much of it landed in the Indian Ocean but several fragments landed in a fireball over Western Australia. The town of Esperance sent NASA a bill for littering.

April 12, 1981: On the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight, NASA launched its first reusable craft, the Space Shuttle, into orbit. Called Columbia, it flew home two days later.

January 28, 1986: Disaster struck when another shuttle, Challenger, exploded just 73 seconds after launch. Seven astronauts including a schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe perished. The accident was blamed on a rubber seal failing on a fuel tank after a rare icy night in Florida.

Spectacular view of International Space Station over New Zealand
Spectacular view of International Space Station over New Zealand (NASA)

November 20, 1998: Construction of the International Space Station began with the launch of the first module, Zarya, by the Russians from Kazakhstan. Permanently manned, the ISS is still being built, serviced regularly by Shuttles, and Russian and European spacecraft.

April 28, 2001: American multimillionaire Dennis Tito became the first paying space tourist when he bought a seat on a Russian Soyuz to visit the International Space Station.

February 1, 2003: America suffered its second Shuttle disaster when the Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing seven astronauts and showering fragments over Texas. The disaster was blamed on damage to the leading edge of a wing caused when insulating foam fell from a fuel tank during launch.

October 15, 2003: China’s first astronaut – or taikonaut – Yang Liwei blasted off into orbit aboard a Shenzhou 5 rocket from Jiuquan. A two-man mission followed in October 2005.

June 3, 2010: Six volunteers begin a simulated European-Russian mission to Mars, being locked away for 520 days at an isolation facility in Moscow.

2011: Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic prepares to carry regular fare-paying passengers into space on sub-orbital flights. More than 400 wannabe space tourists have signed up to pay £120,000 for a flight from New Mexico.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available. Check out our monthly sky guide too!
©PAUL SUTHERLAND, Skymania.com

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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