Forty years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in to space. It was a short trip: one 108-minute circumnavigation of Earth, but it changed human history. When humankind escaped the bounds of the earth’s atmosphere, our views of the world and our place in it changed forever.

Gagarin, who died in 1968 at the age of 34, was a former farm boy who fit the image of a Soviet “hero of the people.” He was a down-to-earth figure, capable of being fashioned into the new Soviet man. Or maybe not: After his death, Gagarin was revealed to be less perfect than his press releases suggested, fond of both women and wine. In many ways, however, that seemed more fitting for the former carpenter’s son who shouted “Let’s go” when he climbed into the capsule for his historic flight.

Gagarin’s mission was the fourth consecutive triumph for the Soviet space program. On Oct. 4, 1957 Soviet scientists put Sputnik, the first satellite, in orbit. A month later, Laika, a dog, became the first living creature in orbit. Two years on, a Soviet satellite made the long voyage to the dark side of the moon.

The heyday of the space industry was the 1960s. Driven by Cold War competition, the United States and the Soviet Union rushed to put men in space and on the moon. Of course, there was a military side to the space race, but the real motivation was status. The nation — and the system — that could first plant its flag in lunar soil would claim technological superiority and to have the future on its side.

The U.S. won the race, and the Cold War, too. But the notion that putting a man on the moon would lead to the conquest of the heavens was mistaken. After returning to the moon five more times, the U.S. ended the Apollo program and shifted to other priorities. Unfortunately, the Mars exploration program has had more failures than successes — although the most recent probe, Odyssey, was successfully launched last weekend — and the dream of creating reusable vehicles that would permit routine space travel has proven illusory.

Today is also the 20th anniversary of the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. That flight was supposed to inaugurate a fleet of orbiters that would eventually allow ordinary citizens to travel in space. The image popularized by Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey” remains just that: the stuff of cinema. Space travel remains prohibitively expensive: Each mission costs about $400 million and preparation for each flight requires weeks or months, rather than days. That is far beyond the means of ordinary citizens, and most governments as well.

It has taken time, but governments have come to recognize that space is our common destiny. It will only be conquered if all nations work together. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed a joint space facility in 1984, but it took 14 more years before 15 nations could work out the details for the International Space Station. In its current form, the ISS involves 16 countries, and the $100 billion price tag means that cooperation is the only way the program, currently scheduled for complete assembly in 2006, can be realized. Despite setbacks of almost every type, the project is proceeding. Astronauts are in space building the ISS.

Our escape from the confines of our atmosphere has been much slower than we envisioned. Space is a much more inhospitable environment than we imagined. Forty years after Gagarin’s flight, we have established one permanent outpost in space and it is only kilometers above our heads. Lunar colonies and interplanetary travel are still the stuff of fantasy. The vast majority of space voyagers are machines, far better suited than humans to the hardships of life beyond our atmosphere.

But if we are as rooted as before, we also have a much keener appreciation of our home. For that, too, we can thank Gagarin and his fellow space travelers. It took distance — and an escape from the artificial lines we have drawn that divide our world — for us to truly understand the planet we inhabit. Space travel did not give birth to the environmental consciousness that burst forth in the 1960s, but it drove home its point and has served as its handmaiden ever since. Every flight to the heavens eventually trains its instruments back on Earth to provide some new glimpse or reveal some new secret that had been withheld.

After four decades of space travel, and all the frustrations and failures that have been part of its history, our fascination with space continues. The desire to conquer the heavens, to know what lies beyond, burns as brightly as it did 40 years ago when Yuri Gagarin climbed into his Vostok capsule and shouted “Let’s go.”

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