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Lessons from Space – Poyekhali! (Let’s go!)

“Чтобы стать крылатым, нужно стремление к полету” – Юрий Гагарин

“In order to grow wings, you must first have the desire to fly” – Yuri Gagarin


Russia has always been a leader in the space industry. Below, I highlight just some of Russia’s major successes in the field, which I believe have had a lasting impact on the sector as a whole.

Yesterday was the 55th anniversary of one of the great breakthroughs in the history of science. On 12th April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel into space. Gagarin’s voyage marked a critical step in the development of Soviet space technology. Upon his return, he became an instant celebrity and the face of Soviet achievement, and his legacy was to serve as an inspiration for everyone who took part in the ‘Space Race’.

At the time of his voyage, achievements in spaceflight were as much a matter of national pride as they were celebrations of the craft and ingenuity of humankind. Gagarin’s pioneering mission imbued the Soviet population with a sense that anything was possible. In an era when the world’s cadre of aspiring space explorers was comprised almost exclusively of male air force pilots, the Soviet Union once again made history in June 1963, when Valentina Tereshkova became not only the first woman, but also the first civilian, to fly into space. It would be a full two decades before the US launched its own first female astronaut into orbit.  Tereshkova’s trailblazing flight on Vostok 6 demonstrated that, regardless of your gender or previous occupation (she herself had been a textile factory worker), at the height of the Soviet space program, the sky really was the only limit.

Building upon the successes of these voyages, in 1966 the Soviet Union launched Luna 9, the country’s – and indeed the world’s – first probe to reach the moon. During its six-day mission, Luna 9 made several breakthrough discoveries, such as establishing the fact that the lunar surface is solid.

Russia continued to develop its space sector throughout the coming years and decades, and 2016 also marks the 30th anniversary since the iconic Mir space station was first sent into orbit. Mir became the world’s first manned orbital space station, setting records for the longest continuous human presence in space, and allowing unprecedented experiments and discoveries, due to its microgravity research laboratory.

The space station provided a springboard for the sort of international collaboration and cooperation that is now the norm in space exploration. In the late 1980s, many astronauts from western European countries visited Mir as part of a series of joint programmes.

It was in this spirit of cooperation that British astronaut Tim Peake joined his Russian and American counterparts to undertake his maiden voyage to the International Space Station late last year, becoming the first Briton in space for 24 years.

It is only fitting that, in time for yesterday’s anniversary, a landmark new space exploration initiative was announced. Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and revered Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking unveiled plans for ‘Breakthrough Starshot’. The sort of project whose relevance and appeal transcends national borders, ‘Breakthrough Starshot’ will attract an ensemble of seasoned international veterans of cosmic research. This team includes the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Pete Worden, and the former director of the Space Research Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences – renowned Russian physicist Roald Sagdeev. Yuri Milner himself is proposing to contribute $100 million to the project.

With their efforts, we might at last be able to form a precise picture of our neighbouring star system – Alpha Centauri – a mere (or staggering) 4.37 light years away. Propelled by 100 gigawatt lasers, state of the art nanorobots will be able to undertake, in just over a generation, a journey that would otherwise occupy our currently available spacecraft for anywhere up to 30,000 years. If nothing else, the vast implications for funding and man hours needed to realise these plans clearly point to the necessity of international cooperation in space research over the next two decades.

Let us hope that this collaborative environment – which has emerged since the end of the ‘Space Race’, stimulating competition in the private sector and fostering cooperation between governments – will continue to spur the space industry onto new heights. Poyekhali! (Let’s go!)

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