FIFTY YEARS AGO today, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space when the Russians packed him in a pod and sent him skywards, the US followed and within the decade had men on the moon.
Since then, well, things have quieted down a bit. Some might debate whether Neil Armstrong actually set foot on the moon in 1969, in fact many many do, but it was a great television ratings winner in the US, and similar broadcasts remained popular in the US for many years after.
Nothing could overshadow Gagarin's achievement though, nor that of the excitement of the first moon landing, though interest in the space race eventually tailed off.
Had the pull of the moon not waned we might have seen the double ratings whammy of a Justin Bieber concert in the Sea of Tranquility, plus the thrill of wondering whether the ship would return safely.
Perhaps the moon isn't all that interesting. The US went, stuck down a flag, popped back a few times and then moved on to new pastures. The Russians never bothered. Given that the cold war was particularly chilly at the time, it is more than a little surprising that the battle for the moon was not greater.
If there was something more to the moon, some rich minerals just lurking about on its surface for example, we'd probably be spending our summers in a gloriously ramshackle Russian motel up there, or perhaps worse, Space Disneyland.
Space though, as wide and infinite as it is, still needs exploring and President Dmitry Medvedev, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary or Gagarin's flight, said that Russia will continue to invest in space exploration.
"We were first into space, we have a huge number of achievements, we don't want to lose our advantage," he is quoted as saying today on the BBC web site. "Humanity will continue to invest in space. I want to say, in the name of Russia, that we will of course do this as space is a priority for us."
Of course, there are more parties in the space race than just Russia and the US. Pans are being promoted to turn some Scottish airports into launch sites, and Richard Branson is planning space holidays.
The latter were probably rather far from Gargarin's mind when he uttered those famous words 50 years ago, "Let's go". µ
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