On 12 April 1961, at 8.05am, a bright orange figure fell from the sky near the city of Engels in western Russia.
A farmer and her daughter watched, first with bewilderment, then fear, as the humanoid shape lumbered towards them after impact, dragging a parachute behind it and shouting indistinctly. They began to back away.
At that point, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took off his white helmet, telling them: “Do not be afraid, I am a Soviet like you! I have descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow.”
2011 is the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s 108-minute sojourn aboard Vostok 1, and it’s a half-century that’s seen both the spectacular rise and fall of space and the cosmos in our collective imaginations. Now, it appears to be making a comeback.
Flights of fancy: (from left) Yuri Gagarin; Wernher von Braun (centre) with then US president John F. Kennedy. Photographs courtesy Nasa
On 30 March, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Messenger probe sent back the first images from Mercury’s orbit, photos of the planet’s battered surface rendered in unprecedented detail. On 1 April, China’s Chang’e 2 probe, currently orbiting the moon, finished its six-month mission to find suitable landing spots for future Chinese rockets. Russia launched a manned Soyuz mission to the International Space Station on 5 April.India’s space agency Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), although caught in the middle of the spectrum scandal, is still on track to launch three satellites this month from the Sriharikota launch facility off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Here’s a brief look back at five decades of leaving Earth behind:
The space race (1957-1969)
Gagarin’s success in 1961 intensified the first “space race” between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the US, and came to dominate the Cold War period.
The Russian space programme was headed by the enigmatic Sergei Korolev (known throughout his life just as “Chief Designer”, since his existence was kept a state secret).
Russia seemed to be in the lead throughout the 1950s and 1960s, notching up a series of firsts: the first satellite (Sputnik in 1957), the first to reach the vicinity of the Moon (Luna 1 in 1959), and the first woman in space (cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963). But the Russians weren’t as focused as thought at the time. Many details, from the frequent infighting to the failed launches, came to light only after glasnost in 1989.
The US programme relied on the leadership of German engineer Wernher von Braun, under whom the space agency Nasa coalesced into the manic energy of the Apollo missions. The successful American moon shot on Apollo 11 in 1969 established the country’s supremacy in space, and marked the beginning of the end for the Russian space programme, which gradually faded away in the 1970s.
Space on a budget (1975-2008)
There’s an iconic 1966 image by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson of one of India’s earliest space launches.
Taken at a launch centre in the village of Thumba in Kerala, a location chosen by physicist Vikram Sarabhai, it shows an advanced rocket head being transported by bicycle to the launch site.
India’s space programme is unbelievably economical (Isro’s budget is around 3% of Nasa’s), but the achievements are no less remarkable—a series of telecommunications satellites (Insat) in 1983, an indigenous launch vehicle (the PSLV) in 1993 and a successful moon probe (Chandrayaan 1) in 2008.
In 2007, the government opened the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, close to Isro’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. The first batch of undergraduate engineers in avionics and aerospace engineering will graduate this year, creating the country’s first batch of trained space engineers and astronauts.
Staring into the deep (1990-2011)
The science fiction dream of manned flight to other planets is still many decades away, but humankind’s unmanned probes have given us an unimagined view of the cosmos. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, sends back spectacularly vivid snapshots from the far reaches of space, while Nasa’s Spirit Rover and Huygens Probe sent back stark images from the surface of Mars and Titan, respectively.
The Russian Centre of Science and Culture will be hosting a series of events to commemorate Gagarin’s launch. These include film screenings, lectures and exhibitions. For details, log on to Russiancentre.org.in