Fifty years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the earth. The 27-year old Gagarin circled the earth in a 108 minute flight in a 5-ton Vostok capsule. Then-Vice-President Lyndon Johnson admitted: "I felt uneasy and apprehensive. In the open West, you learn to live with the sky as part of your life. But now, somehow, in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien."
In catchup mode, NASA launched astronaut Alan Shepard into a 15 minute suborbital flight on May 5. Stung by this Soviet technological success, President John Kennedy announced in a speech before Congress on May 25, 1961 the goal that the U.S. would send an American safely to moon before the end of the decade. The space race was on.
Space became an arena for national competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, four cents of every tax dollar was devoted to the space program and the Apollo moon program cost approximately $25 billion ($170 billion in 2010 dollars). Fifty years later, space will perhaps now become an arena for commercial competition.
Whatever the politics, Gagarin's trip was an amazing technological triumph that deserves commemoration.