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A starry golden anniversary

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COMMENTS

12 April 2011 09:06

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer.

Today, 12 April 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the first human space flight. Major Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Air Force made a single orbit of the Earth aboard his Vostok 1 spacecraft, sparking amazement around the world.

His mission raised tensions between the Soviet Union and the US, where fears of Soviet space achievements after the shock launch of Sputnik in 1957 sent the US into a frantic race to beat them to the Moon.

After half a century of spaceflight, it is fair to say that most space launches have become routine. Most launches pass without notice. Space influences many aspects of our daily lives, from GPS navigation systems, to telecommunications, to recent satellite images of the stricken nuclear reactors in Japan.

It's taken for granted. With their attention focused elsewhere, few Americans (and people outside the US) are aware of the serious crisis that has plagued NASA in recent years.

After years of inconsistent (and often incoherent) governance by America's lawmakers, NASA is currently an agency without a long-term mission. The trouble-plagued Space Shuttle is about to be retired, forcing US astronauts to ride aboard Russian spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Plans for a return to the Moon were scuttled by the White House in early 2010. NASA faces budget cutbacks in a difficult fiscal climate. The Space Station will continue to operate, but there will be no dramatic new moves.

A new breed of private entrepreneurs is frantically developing private spacecraft and as the decade unfolds, some of them may succeed in developing new vehicles for US astronauts.

But in the meantime, the US will be totally dependent on Russian Soyuz launches. The price of a seat on board these spacecraft is steadily rising with each new batch sale. Russia has a monopoly on crew transport to the International Space Station, and is wielding its power to its advantage.

So the nation that placed astronauts on the Moon and has probed every planet in the solar system now finds itself in a crisis in spaceflight.

In some ways, it's like a repeat of 1961.The US's space program is lagging, and fear of Russia is rising.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

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