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By Dmitry Yudin, Chargés d’Affaires a.i.

Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Zambia

This April marks 60 years since Yuri Gagarin took humankind’s first tentative step into space on board of spacecraft Vostok 1. Sixty years have passed since that amazing voyage, but the legend of Gagarin’s courage and journey to the “final frontier” continues to be a source of inspiration for space exploration for peoples and nations around the world.

In 2011 in dedication of the first manned space flight the United Nations General Assembly declared 12 April as the International Day of Human Space Flight.

The theory of space exploration had a solid basis in the Russian Empire before the First World War with the writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) who introduced in 1929 the concept of the multistaged rocket.

Practical aspects built on early experiments carried out by members of the reactive propulsion study group, GIRD, in the 1920s and 1930s, with such figures as Sergey Korolyov, who dreamed of traveling to Mars, and the German-Russian engineer Friedrich Zander.

The USSR rocket and space program was performed by the Soviet engineers and scientists after 1955. Sergey Korolyov was the head of the principal design group; his official title was “chief designer”. Unlike its American competitor in the “space race”, which had NASA as a single coordinating agency, the USSR program was split among several competing design groups.

Gagarin’s flight came at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for technological supremacy in space. The Soviet Union had already sent the first artificial satellite, called Sputnik, into space in October 1957.

By January 1959, the Soviets had begun preparations for human spaceflight. Physicians from the Soviet Air Force insisted that the potential cosmonaut candidates be qualified Air Force pilots, arguing that they would have relevant skills such as exposure to higher g-forces, as well as ejection seat experience. The candidates had to be intelligent, comfortable in high-stress situations, and physically fit. Gagarin was chosen from a pool of over 200 qualified pilots.

Before the mission, the Soviets sent a test flight into space using a prototype of the Vostok spacecraft. During this flight, they sent a life-size dummy called Ivan Ivanovich and a dog named Zvezdochka into space. After the test flight, the Soviet’s considered the vessel fit to take a human into space.

Despite the very large geographical size of the Soviet Union, there were obvious limitations to monitoring orbital spaceflights from ground stations within the country. To remedy this, the Soviets stationed about seven naval vessels, or tracking ships, around the world.

On April 12, 1961, at 9:07 a.m. Moscow time, the Vostok 1 spacecraft blasted off from the Soviets’ launch site. Because no one was certain how weightlessness would affect a pilot, the spherical capsule had little in the way of onboard controls; the work was done either automatically or from the ground.

Over the course of 108 minutes, Vostok 1 traveled around the Earth once, reaching a maximum height of 327 kilometers. The spacecraft carried 10 days’ worth of provisions in case the engines failed and Gagarin was required to wait for the orbit to naturally decay.

But the supplies were unnecessary. Gagarin reentered Earth’s atmosphere, managing to maintain consciousness as he experienced forces up to eight times the pull of gravity during his descent.

Upon his return to Earth, Gagarin became an international hero. A cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands of people greeted him in Red Square, a public plaza in Moscow.

The first woman in space was former Soviet civilian parachutist Valentina Tereshkova. She reached the orbit on June 16, 1963, aboard the Soviet mission Vostok 6. March 18, 1965, scored yet another victory in space exploration as cosmonaut Alexey Leonov made history’s first spacewalk.

He left the cozy environs of his Voskhod 2 spacecraft while in orbit around the Earth. Leonov stayed outside for 12 minutes, with only a spacesuit separating him from the frigid near-vacuum of space.

A decade after humans first made it to outer space, they finally got a place to stay up there. The Soviet Union launched the Salyut 1 – the world’s first space station – on April 19, 1971. The first real space station didn’t last long. On October 11, 1971, engineers fired Salyut 1’s engines for the last time, bringing the structure lower and lower. The craft soon burned up in Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

But what future lies ahead for humans in space? Nowadays the International Space Station is a model for global cooperation and scientific advancements that is enabling growth of private industry in low-Earth orbit and development of new technologies to advance human space exploration.

Built between 1998 and 2011, the space station has housed humans continuously since November 2, 2000. Because molecules and cells behave differently in space, research in microgravity helps advance scientific knowledge. Nine crew members gathered in the International Space Station’s Kibo laboratory represent four of the five participating space agencies.

The station is a partnership of 15 nations through Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). “Kibo” means “hope” in Japanese.

All crew members speak Russian and English. More than a dozen countries have the ability to launch rockets into Earth orbit. A half-dozen space agencies have designed spacecraft that shed the shackles of Earth’s gravity and traveled to the moon or Mars. And this story shows no signs of letting up.

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