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When Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961, the world was a much different place.
The United States and Russia were at the height of the Cold War, and competition to get to space between the two nations was fierce.
But as Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, Russian, American and Italian space explorers are working together to better understand how the human body works and preparing for human deep-space missions to Mars.
"The early years of space exploration were the years of the space race," Commander Dmitry Kondratyev said Tuesday during a news conference transmitted from the International Space Station. "It was a matter of political prestige. But in our day and age, the International Space Station constitutes a great example of cooperation in space exploration. The upcoming large-scale explorations that will lead us upward and onward will be international."
That international cooperation is something that has resonated deeply with former Utah Sen. Jake Garn, who in 1985 flew a space shuttle mission, the first of which launched 30 years ago.
Garn still meets every year with fellow astronauts and cosmonauts to reminisce about their time in space. Despite some of the deeply-seated animosities that erupted during the Cold War, after seeing Earth floating alone in space with no borders demarcated on the land, they consider themselves brothers and sisters.
"There are more galaxies out there than grains of sand on all the Earth's beaches, but we've got to fight and kill each other on this little speck of dirt floating in the universe?" he said. "We're all children of God traveling on Spaceship Earth."
Utah's Thiokol Propulsion Corp., which Alliant Techsystems (ATK) took over in 2001, was integral to getting the first shuttle into space. They crafted the solid rocket boosters that have lifted every shuttle mission off the Earth since its first launch on April 12, 1981. Only two space shuttle missions remain since NASA budget cuts led the agency to ground its space exploration program.
"It's hard to believe that this year it's drawing to an end. It's a very bittersweet time," said George Torres, ATK spokesman. "Look at all the accomplishments and all the terrific missions that have changed a lot of lives, and how we look at not just the world but the universe and the technological advances that have happened."
He says the intense passion that existed during the Cold War may not be so prevalent now, but the benefits stemming from space missions have become more applicable to daily lives as satellites supply weather maps, GPS coordinates and television feeds.
"A lot of the growth in space is really what's going on in orbit that people don't see every day," he said. "But as the shuttle is going away, people who didn't pay attention before are standing up and asking what's next."
NASA's mission has switched focus to sending humans to Mars and farther into space, requiring new spacecraft and technology development.
Fifty years of space flight have not come without risks. So far, 29 astronauts and cosmonauts have died either on space missions or training for them, including Gagarin, who died while flying a jet during training. Two shuttles, the Challenger and the Columbia, have exploded, killing all on board.
"Astronauts are in this endeavor because it's a passion to explore and they know the risk," Torres said. "We try to minimize that risk and learn from every accident just like any industry."
As the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station mused Tuesday about the last 50 years of space exploration with a picture of Gagarin floating next to them, flight engineer Catherine Coleman talked about space flight moving from a rarity to a regular event.
"Living in space seems perfectly normal," she said, adding that her fourth-grade son's friends don't find it odd his mom calls from space to help with homework.
But some worry that the United States has become complacent in reaching for the stars.
Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium, remembers sitting in his first-grade classroom in Virginia on the day that Gagarin made his orbit. His teacher took down a globe and mapped out the Russian's flight. He remembered learning the word cosmonaut that day. He also remembers Alan Shepard's trip marking the first American in space and then subsequent cosmonauts and astronauts taking to the heavens.
"America was space crazy. Space exploration really resounded with the public," Jarvis said. "It allowed people to simultaneously assert national pride and was genuinely inspiring."
Alexander Boldyrev, a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Utah State University, grew up in Siberia and remembers watching that same fervor spread through the former USSR when Gagarin made his orbit.
"He was superhuman and of course all the kids dreamed to grow up and be cosmonauts," he said. "But eventually Russians lost the competition and the strong support of the people stopped. We have the technology to have a permanent settlement on the moon, but there simply is no will in any country to do that."
Jarvis remembers being astounded at going from the first man in space to space stations and the shuttle in only 20 years. But he laments the lack of progress in the last 30 years: the U.S. is still using the same type of spacecraft and hasn't left the earth's orbit since the original moon missions.
"America is still the leader in aerospace technology, and why don't we play to our strengths and reinvest in that?" Jarvis said. "If space exploration is spiritually satisfying, doesn't that matter as much as a technological or economic benefit? We need to recognize and celebrate our heroes again."
He hopes the current generation will once again become awestruck by the possibilities space exploration provides both among the stars and here on Earth.
"I want space to be a never-ending source of inspiration," he said."The edge is where growth takes place, and space is the ultimate edge."
Space shuttles going to Fla., Calif., suburban D.C.
Cape Canaveral, Fla. • NASA is giving its retiring space shuttles to museums in Cape Canaveral, Los Angeles and suburban Washington.
Twenty-one museums and visitor centers around the country put in bids for the spaceships.
The retiring shuttles are going to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, the California Science Center in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian Institution for its branch in northern Virginia.
New York City will get the prototype Enterprise, which was used for test flights in the 1970s.
The announcement Tuesday comes on the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight and the 50th anniversary of man's first journey into space.
The shuttle program is winding down with only two more flights left.
The Associated Press