Sixty years ago this minute, at 06:07 UTC, 23:07 PST, 02:07 EST, the first human being left the planet.
It was the height of the Cold War and the Space Race was 1% about exploration and 99% about ideology, superiority, and world domination. The Russians had shocked the world by putting the first satellite in orbit in 1957, leaving the Americans in the dust. Everyone knew that the next step would be to put a man into space. (And make no doubt, while today we talk about “crewed” spacecraft and “piloted” spacecraft, in 1961 it was a “manned” spacecraft.)
The Americans had introduced the Mercury 7 astronauts on April 9, 1959, but progress on the launch of the first Mercury astronaut had been troublesome, and public. American rockets blew up on national television.
The Russian space program was cloaked in secrecy. If they had problems, no one knew about it. But when they had success? Yuri Gagarin launched on Vostok 1 for a 108 minute flight, one orbit around the Earth, and became an international star and a name that would go down in human history.
We’ve come a long way. Tonight, ten humans from the US, Russia, and Japan, men and women, black and white, are on the ISS, and it’s been 20+ years of constant habitation.