April 12, 1961, is a day steeped in history; Yuri Gagarin conquered space. Though it wasn’t yet the big moment, it was nevertheless a veritable historical prelude. Humanity managed the big moment eight years later. “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” were the words of Neil Armstrong, commander of the legendary Apollo 11, when he was the first man to walk on the moon. But we will look back a little further, at the first manned orbit around the world, conducted by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and so a forefather of the Space Hype.
A fatal showdown
In the 50s and 60s, great powers USA and the Soviet Union engaged in a fiercely competitive technological and political race. Though there was the arms race during the Cold War, which lasted until the 1990s, it was the race to the first moon landing that truly kept the world waiting with bated breath. It’s funny, but you work toward leaving this planet and looking at the big picture from a distance. Or, to put it more modestly, to take a look at the small blue planet in the huge universe from a different perspective. And in the end it was still about which nation was better and the first to make it. If the nations had agreed to leave this technological test of strength to the journey into space and ultimately the moon landing, that would have been understandable. Though often enough is never enough. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the USA and the Soviet Union faced each other head-on and the world feared the worst with the stationing of nuclear missiles, was such a harbinger of pointless tests of strength.
The Space Hype is dead, long live the Space Hype!
It took a long time for the Space Hype to evaporate a bit. After thirsting for success during the Cold War and quenching the hungry pioneering spirit, the focus shifted to everyday life and thus to research. Space travel became commonplace, as is usual in technological development. The miracle had happened and was no longer a miracle. Since Yuri Gagarin there have been a total of 347 manned space flights, most of which were carried out by either the US or the Soviet Union. Mentionable dates are May 6 and 31, 2001, as there has been an astronaut permantently in space since then. October 2001, the American entrepreneur Dennis Tito became the first “non-astronaut,” or really tourist, to fly into space. Since 2011, American astronauts have had to carpool, so to speak, into space, as NASA has stopped all flights, most obviously for cost reasons.
While the interest in real space travel decreased due to current development and everyday life, the Space Hype continues to live on in fantasy worlds, like those in Star Wars and Star Trek. Even Marvel created fantasy worlds for avowed space fans. Contrary to the old image of the “Space Race,” the Star Trek series and films focus on cooperation between peoples and cultures. Is this the foundation for modern space travel?
The sleeping giant awakens
It really does work! Since 2010, astronauts have been occupying the ISS, a joint project of NASA, the Russian space agency Roskosmos, the European space agency ESA, as well as Canada’s CSA and Japan’s JAXA. This means research and international understanding between 100 countries, in a very cramped space, at a speed of 28,000 m/h, about 400 km above our heads. We can see that if everyone wants it and pulls together, then we can accomplish a lot. #winkwinknudgenudge!
Possible future outerspace projects range from soil remediation on Mars to the development of Mach-effect thrusters, which could even make interstellar travel possible, to the Pluto mission, where a probe can bounce around for a few laps. Responsible for this is none other than NASA, the original Big Player in space travel. A list of the projects presented in 2017 can be found on the US Space Agency’s homepage.
In addition to the stately institutions, more and more private providers are pushing into the market. Most prominently Elon Musk. In 2002, the Tesla CEO founded the space company SpaceX with the aim of developing technologies that would enable humanity to colonize Mars. High praise, but anyone who has dealt a little with the visionary entrepreneur won’t be surprised at this point. Musk is known for his pioneering spirit and is a trusted technological genius. His space company quickly became a major supplier for the ISS. The development of adding landing gear to launch vehicles can be counted among the most significant technological developments of our time. On December 21, 2015, local time, the 20th launch of Falcon 9 returned from space and landed safely at Cape Canaveral. On April 8, 2016, the first CRS-8 mission successfully landed back on Earth. In the near future, a manned spaceflight as part of SpaceX should also be expected, which will represent a major step toward space tourism. The dream of every Star Trek fan could come true in the not-so-distant future.