On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space. At 06:07 UTC a Vostok rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in what’s now Kazakhstan and lifted the 27-year-old Soviet air force pilot into orbit and into history.
The launch fixed the Soviet Union’s place at the head of the Space Race, when spaceflight marked the leading edge of superpower technology.
Spaceflight is no longer a superpower monopoly. Today, 58 years later, the Space Race is led by SpaceX, one of many private companies opening up spaceflight.
This morning (NZ time), an Israeli non-profit organisation came painfully close to landing the first privately-funded spacecraft on the moon. The probe was launched in February this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It got within a few hundred metres of the moon’s surface before its main engine failed and it was unable to slow its descent enough to land softly.
Three hours later, SpaceX launched the world’s most powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, carrying a Saudi Communications satellite. The satellite was nothing out of the ordinary, but the Falcon Heavy’s centre core and both side boosters, made near simultaneous landings and will be used again. Not only is this an extraordinary technical feat that puts traditional launch providers to shame but it will transform the economics of spaceflight.
After decades of stagnation, spaceflight is exciting again!