Space celebrations

Features editor

It’s eyes to the sky for this week’s Monday Briefing, as the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight. Major Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a Vostok 3KA-3 capsule on 12 April 1961, orbiting the Earth and spending 108 minutes in space, shocking the world and inducing near-panic at NASA. The first American in space, Alan Shepard, followed three weeks later, although his flight was suborbital.

Unsurprisingly, this has become an ausipcious date for spacefarers. It also marks the 30th anniversary of the first Space Shuttle flight; the shuttle Columbia took off from Cape Canaveral on 12 July 1981 on its first test flight, spending two days in orbit and returning to a gliding landing at Edwards Air Force Base, the first time a reusable spacecraft had returned to Earth.

Both anniversaries are tinged with sadness; Gagarin was killed in a plane crash in 1968, and Columbia was destroyed in a catastrophic explosion, killing its seven-strong crew, in February 2003. Moreover, the entire Shuttle fleet is reaching retirement: the last flight, of the shuttle Atlantis, is scheduled for June.

Nonetheless, there is a programme of events to commemorate Gagarin’s flight. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Europe’s largest engineering organisation, is leading the celebration in the UK, with a keynote event at its Savoy Place headquarters on the 12th. Chaired by Chris Welch, it will feature talks from John Zarnecki, professor of space at the Open University; David Williams, chief executive of the UK Space Agency; and space broadcaster Chris Riley.

Also on Tuesday, the design drawings for the ultimate supercar, the landspeed record contender Bloodhound SSC, will be made public on the internet. Over 1.5m students in 4,500 schools around the country will be able to see the drawings, presented in 3D; the full-scale model of the car itself will be on display during the day on Horse Guard’s Parade, Westminster.

Elsewhere in the engineering sector, Honda is to resume production at its Japanese plants in Sayama and Suzuka today, following the earthquakes in the north of the country a month ago. However, the output of its UK plant in Swindon is to be halved, as the earthquake has led to a shortage of parts. This will also affect Nissan’s Sunderland plant, which will cease production for three days later this month; the non-production days were already planned but have been brought forward to the three days between the Easter break and the Royal Wedding bank holiday weekend, so there will be no production between 22 April and 2 May.