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The desire to fly and to conquer space and reach the heavens by leaving Earth has always been present in man. In this century, the advent of space travel has begun to make a part of this dream attainable, and has told us much not only about space, but about Earth itself, and indeed ourselves. 

Man’s primal need to conquer space was on the road to fruition with the origin of the rocket. The earliest known of these, propelled by a charcoal-saltpetre-sulphur gunpowder was made by the Chinese around 1100, and became known in Europe by 1258. Sir Isaac Newton first propounded the physical laws controlling the flight of artificial satellites in his Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Polish plans of a three-stage solid fuel rocket and the modern cluster principle were published in Artis Magnae Artillerae in 1650, and liquid fuel for reaction propulsion was first proposed by a Russian-born Pole, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskiy, in 1898. In April 1931 Rheinhold Tiling’s solid fuel rocket broke all rocket altitude records when launched from Osnabrück, Germany, reaching a height of 1.24 miles.

In Auburn MA, on 16 March 1926 the first true rocket moment occurred when Dr Robert Hutchings Goddard launched his own patent liquid fuel rocket, which reached a height of 41 feet and travelled 184 feet.

According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, space officially starts at a height of 100 km (62.137 miles, or 328,083 ft). The first space flight included four monkeys, code-named Albert 1, 2, 3 and 4, who were sent 85 miles into the stratosphere (244 miles high) in a V2 rocket launched from White Sands NM on 24 February 1949. The monkeys all survived. 

However the Space Age began with the surprise launch by the Russians of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik (Fellow Traveller) 1, officially named Satellite 1957 Alpha 2, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (45N06 63E04), near Tyuratam (now Leninsk), 170 miles east of the Aral Sea and 155.34 miles south of Baikonur in Western Siberia. It weighed 184.3 lb. and was 22.8” in diameter. It took off at 1912 GMT on 4 October 1957, from a launcher designed by former Gulag prisoner Dr Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov (1907-1966) and measured temperatures and atmospheric density, orbiting the Earth at up to 558 miles in 96.2 minutes. It burnt up at re-entry on 4 January 1958. Sputnik 2 carried Laika, the first dog in space. She was launched into space from Baikonur on 3 November 1957, but was obliged to perish with the satellite on re-entry.

The Russians were also the first to put a man into space. It is alleged that they first did this in 1957 when they launched a satellite bearing Alexis Ledovski from the Soviet missile centre 60 miles south-east of Stalingrad, but that he perished, along with subsequent cosmonauts Serentsy Schiborin (1958), Andrei Mitkov (1959), and Ivan Kachur (1960). It is known that a manned space flight was planned for December 1960, but that the rocket blew up on the launch pad, causing deaths. This was confirmed in 1992 when Central Committee files on the space program were released.

Flt Maj. Yuri Gagarin (b. 9.3.1934, near Smolensk, 54N49 32E04)(a speculative time of 0630 hr EET is often quoted), became the first acknowledged man in space when he was launched from the USSR launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome, at 0607 GMT on 12 April 1961, in Vostok I. It reached 17,560 mph and at maximum altitude was 203.2 miles away. It was recovered after a single orbit of 89.1 minutes at 109-188 miles average altitude, at Smelovka, near Engels, Saratov, 108 minutes later. 

“Yuri Gagarin will always be remembered as the symbol of man’s victory over the force of gravity”, read the official Soviet announcement at the time. A successful capsule landing was claimed by the Russians for many years, but it was later uncovered that Gagarin had parachuted to Earth from an altitude of 23,000 ft after his capsule began to revolve at great speed. Gagarin had known something was wrong 10 seconds after the capsule separated. His secret official report relates how he “started feeling the outer layer burning...According to my calculations the gravity was over 10g...My eyes glazed over”. At this point, Gagarin decided to bail out. “Got out of the ship, together with the seat. Then the stabilising parachute was activated...then an emergency parachute opened. It never fully opened.” Gagarin was later killed in a low level jet plane crash near Moscow, 27 March 1968.

Alan Shepard (b. 18.11.1923, East Derry NH; d. 21.7.1998, Monterey CA) became the first American in space when the Mercury capsule Freedom 7 was launched from Cape Canaveral FL (28N24, 80W36) at 0924 GMT on 5 May 1961. Lt-Col John Glenn (b. 18.7.1921, 1600 hr CDT, Cambridge OH) was the first US astronaut to orbit in space, when the Mercury capsule Friendship 7 was launched on 20 February 1962 (0947 EST, Cape Canaveral FL), and completed three orbits in 4 hr 40 min at a height of 100-160 miles. He splashed down off Puerto Rico at 1505 EST. In 1997 plans were announced for him to undertake another mission as the oldest man to enter space, and he took off from Cape Canaveral FL on board Discovery at 1419 EST on 29 October 1998.

Telstar, a communication satellite, was launched 10 July 1962, and later transmitted live television pictures between US and Europe, circling the Earth at 158 minute intervals.

Lt Valentina Tereshkova (b. 6.3.1937, Maslennikovo, Yaroslavl, USSR) became the first woman cosmonaut when Vostok 6 was launched into space from Baikonur at 0930 hr GMT, 16 June 1963, and completed 48 orbits of Earth before landing 0816 hr GMT on 19 June. Rockets powered by ion discharge are capable of speeds up to 100,000 mph and were first used in flight by the USSR Mars probe Zond II, launched 30 November 1964. Other firsts include the first space walk - Voskhod 2 was launched 18 March 1965 bearing Col Pavel Belyaev and Lt Alexei Leonov (b. 20.5.1934), and at 0830 hr GMT the same day Leonov left the space craft for about 20 minutes and floated in space for over 12 minutes at the end of a 16 ft rope. The first American to walk in space was Ed White, in Gemini 4, on 3 June 1965.

The Americans launched the first re-usable spacecraft on 12 April 1981 when Robert Crippen (b. 11.9.1937, Beaumont TX) became the first pilot of a US space shuttle orbital flight, and returned to Earth 14 April. Sally Ride (b. 26.5.1951, 0811 hr PDST, Los Angeles CA) became the first American woman astronaut when she blasted into space from Cape Canaveral in Challenger at 0733 hr EDST, 18 June 1983, returning 24 June. The first woman to engage in extra-vehicular activity in space was Svetlana Savitskaya from Soyuz T12/Salyut 7 on 25 July 1985.

28 January 1986 saw the worst space fatality known to date when Challenger 5IL exploded, 73 seconds after lift off from Cape Canaveral at 1138 hr, at a height of 47,000 feet, instantly killing its crew of seven, including two women. One of these, Christa McAuliffe (b. 2.9.1948, 2113 hr EST, Boston MA), a teacher, was the first civilian to be sent into space.

Britain didn’t put an astronaut into space until 1991. Soyuz TM-12 was launched on the Juno Mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 18 May at 1350 hr 28” GMT with a crew including a food technician named Helen Sharman (b. 30.5.1963), Britain’s first astronaut and the 12th woman in space. She had trained with her back-up, Tim Mace, at Star City, near Moscow. Before take-off the outward commander, Anatoli Artsebarski, was quoted as saying, “It’s not a woman’s business to fly into space. More work can be done by a man.” She was known by the press as the girl from Mars, because of her background as a food research scientist for the confectionery company. They reported that among the personal articles she took into space were a photograph of the Queen, a Union Jack, a butterfly brooch given to her by her father, nail clippers and lipsalve. In a radio link-up with her father at the Cosmodrome the day after take-off she declared that everything was wonderful. “Space is out of this world”, she joked. The shuttle docked manually with the Mir space station at 1430 hr GMT, 20 May. The return journey from Mir began 0340 hr GMT, with a 0613 hr GMT launch, and the craft landed at 1004 hr 48” GMT, 26 May 1991, near Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, 46 miles from the Cosmodrome, restoring Helen Sharman, engineer Viktor Afanasyev and Commander Musa Manarov (b. 22.3.1951, Azerbaijani) to Earth. Unfortunately, due to the fast-moving political changes in the USSR, Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyov, who manned the Mir space station, was left orbiting in space until 25 March 1992, landing 0949 hr 54” GMT, by which time he had unexpectedly been in space a record 310 days. The previous day, 24 March 1992, Michael Foale (34) had become the first British man in space, blasting off from Cape Canaveral 1300 hr GMT.

The US Columbia shuttle was launched on the first of 41 planned missions devoted to space medicine from Cape Canaveral on 5 June 1991, with four men, 3 women (Tammy Jemigan, Millie Hughes-Fulford, Margaret Rhea Seddon) and a cargo of 2,478 jellyfish, 30 rats and 30 mice, to help monitor the effects of weightlessness. The space shuttle Endeavour, designed to supersede Challenger, made its first launch on 8 May 1992, the 47th shuttle mission, with a crew of seven, bearing a part of the sternpost from Capt James Cook’s ship and namesake Endeavour. On 13 May three astronauts from Endeavour undertook the first three-person space walk to repair IntelSat-6, a faulty satellite, by fitting a new booster rocket which would send it back to its correct orbit. The walk lasted a record 8 hours 29 minutes.