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Today in 1961 marked the culmination of years of fevered scientific research and technological advancement as Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, beating the US to the punch. 

Launching from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the spacecraft Vostok, Gagarin spent 108 minutes orbiting the globe, travelling at more than 17,000 miles per hour before descending back to terra firma.

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev congratulated Gagarin, saying "The flight made by you opens up a new page in the history of mankind in its conquest of space."

It wasn't until 5 May that the US sent astronaut Alan Shepherd soaring into space, to match the Soviet's achievement. This landmark was the latest in a series of defeats for the Americans in the Space Race, with the Soviets also achieving a number of other firsts before their Cold War foes; including the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) and the first space walk.

But of course, history will remind us that these defeats only served to galvanise US efforts, with the nation achieving the first man on the moon in 1969, an achievement the Soviets, nor any other country, have since managed to match.

As the increasing cost and the waning public appetite for expensive manned missions began to take their toll throughout the 1970s and 1980s, both countries turned their attention to orbital space stations, with the USSR launching the first Salyut in 1971, followed by the American Skylab in 1973. 

Eventually, with the Cold War thawing, the US and USSR, along with several other space agencies, agreed to work together on the International Space Station, a feat of engineering that took the combined expertise of five space agencies, representing more than 25 countries, whose first components were launched in 1998 and is scheduled to remain in orbit for at least another decade.

With relations between Russia and the West again souring, the next step in space exploration, a manned mission to Mars, looks unlikely to be the same kind of joint effort between nations. As commercial space companies take over the business of launching satellites into low earth orbit, this again frees up the resources of national space agencies to tackle the next frontier. Watch this space.

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