Magical moment

A half century ago the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin broke into outer space and completed a successful orbit of the earth in his Vostok-1 spacecraft. It was a great technological advance for the mankind which had always dreamed of breaking the shackles imposed by time and space.

Space travel has lost its novelty now and so it is difficult to imagine the sense of achievement, awe and excitement created by the first space flight then. The first steps of the great leap for mankind which happened eight years later when two Americans landed on the moon were taken by Gagarin.

It showcased not just the power of science and technology in the pursuit to conquer nature. Like all great milestones in the expansion of knowledge and breaching of the frontiers of the possible it gave a new dimension to the self-image of man. The wonderment about the universe out there has not diminished, and perhaps only increased.

Space travel has gone much farther than the rudimentary flight of Gagarin. The Vostok flight triggered off a space race between the Soviet Union and the US in the time of the Cold War. It did help to plan and execute bigger space ventures but politics took a backseat later and economics took over, especially after the US won the race and the Soviet Union collapsed.

The huge cost of the flights took the edge off the competition and attention shifted to co-operation and collaboration. The International Space Station, which orbits around the earth, and the Hubble telescope which is peering into greater distances than imagined, are such joint ventures. New programmes like explorations of Mars are being planned but they are unlikely to be solo efforts by individual countries.

The fascination for manned flights has also decreased because much of what humans can observe and experience can now be done with the help of technology and machines without risking lives.

More countries have drawn up their own space programmes and have achieved various levels of success and achievement. India and China are among them. While they have to catch up with the space superpowers, they can benefit from the lessons and experience of explorations undertaken in the last 50 years. All that started with the Gagarin moment in history.

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