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40 years of space flight, 20 years of shuttles

Yuri Gagarin in the bus taking him to the launch pad for the launch of Vostok 1  

(CNN) -- An obscure Soviet fighter pilot rode into history on this day 40 years ago, circling the planet to become the first man in space. Exactly 20 years later another milestone in the heavens was reached, as the U.S. space shuttle blasted into orbit on its maiden voyage.

Yuri Gagarin captured the imagination of the world when he spent 90 minutes in orbit. Millions watched the news intently, wondering if his Vostok spacecraft would survive its blazing hot reentry into the atmosphere.

The 27-year-old Air Force officer survived the trip, landing in a remote rural area of Russia. His welcoming committee was rather modest, a startled woman and girl, who let him use the phone.


Russians from Leningrad to Petropavlovsk cheered the news about Gagarin, who had flown higher (188 miles) and faster (18,000 mph) than anyone before. Man's dream of space travel had become a reality.

Today, cities across the world -- including Moscow, Tokyo, London, Houston, even a South Pole science station -- are celebrating the anniversary. Live Web coverage of the activities can be followed at

Gagarin went into orbit at the height of the Cold War. And most of his hundreds of successors in space were Russians or Americans. They floated on spacewalks, planted flags on the moon and built space stations, all playing their role in an international rivalry. But those who visited space often returned with tempered nationalism.

"I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, not destroy it," Gagarin once said.

Over time the former antagonists forged an improbable peaceful partnership in the heavens, culminating months ago in the opening of the international space station Alpha.

Scaling back Mars dreams

Alpha could not have been built without the space shuttle, which first went into space when Columbia took its maiden voyage on April 12, 1981.

The space shuttle Columbia takes off on its maiden flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 12, 1981  

When first envisioned in the 1970s, the shuttle was to be a reusable space plane that built way-stations in space for trips to Mars. When the shuttle finally emerged in the 1980s, it had more "modest" objectives.

NASA hoped to send the shuttle up once or twice a month, an impossible load tragically underscored by the disastrous loss of the shuttle Challenger and seven astronauts in 1986.

The three remaining shuttles eventually limped back into service, along with a newcomer, Endeavour, which was built with spare parts.

In retrospect, the 10-story workhorses have performed admirably, carrying more than 600 passengers and 3 million pounds of cargo. In cumulative flight time, the fleet has logged almost 2.5 years on more than 100 flights.

Shuttle crews have docked with the space stations Mir and Alpha, repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, launched probes to study planets and tested the effects of space on plants, animals and humans.

The first space shuttle crew: Bob Crippen, left, and John Young  

NASA spent about $1 billion to develop a successor, but scrapped the problem-plagued program this year, meaning the shuttle will be around for decades.

The space agency will give the entire fleet a major overhaul during the next five years. Some of the orbiters already have been equipped with the new parts, including a smart glass cockpit that simplifies flying and engine sensors that can predict potential trouble.

It took almost 20 years for the orbiter to live up to its billing. Last month Discovery delivered the second crew to space station Alpha and returned with the first, becoming a true shuttle in space.

Shuttle astronaut to be first Canadian spacewalker
April 9, 2001
Shuttle to deliver robot arm to Alpha
March 29, 2001
First Alpha crew gives space station high marks
March 28, 2001
Discovery brings home first Alpha crew
March 21, 2001
Alpha crew tackles false fire alarm
March 19, 2001

Yuri's Night Live!
NASA Human SpaceFlight

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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