Apr 122011

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin flew into outer space, becoming the first human to orbit the Earth.

I often wonder why it is so that fifty years later, space travel still remains an incredibly expensive novelty. After all, 50 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, transoceanic air travel was a daily reality, and the jet era and mass air travel were just around the corner.

But then, perhaps it is unfair to compare Gagarin’s flight to that of the Wright brothers. Perhaps it’s more like the Montgolfier brothers’ first manned flight in a balloon, in 1783. After all, a space capsule in an inertial orbit has a lot more in common with a balloon blown about by the wind than a modern, highly maneuverable airplane. So perhaps before space travel becomes routine for the masses, it is essential to make a technological leap similar to that between a primitive hot-air balloon and powered, heavier-than-air flight.

As a footnote of sorts, the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle also occurred on this date, 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the Shuttle was far from being that necessary breakthrough. Its winged elegance notwithstanding, it’s still a chemically powered rocket, and chemical propulsion is just not sufficient… space flight will never become routine if you need 3000 tons of propellant to put a 100-ton payload into orbit.

 Posted by at 12:16 pm