Fifty years after he became the first human to travel in space, Yuri Gagarin remains an inspiration. What will we be in awe of another half decade from now? The Cold War-fueled Space Race has ended and Russia now collaborates with NASA, while China has built up a formidable program of its own. But human exploration of the solar system has actually contracted in scope since 1972, when the last Apollo astronauts returned to Earth from the Moon. The first decade after Gagarin’s flight was rich in firsts but the last four have seen little but trips to and from low Earth orbit.
What’s the Latest Development?
Ambition is returning to the sphere of space travel. Agencies around the world are planning sophisticated missions to the moon and beyond. Obama has steered NASA away from the moon and toward a crewed asteroid landing around 2025 instead. Mars is still tantalizing and also on the agenda is a crewed mission to a Lagrange point in space, one of five gravitational equilibrium points in the sun–Earth system. The gravitational and centrifugal forces balance in such points, creating a relatively stable place to “hover” in a deep-space orbit, and they could form a key step on the path to human space colonization.