It lasted less than two hours, but the impact of the first manned space flight on April 12, 1961 still rings around the world more than half a century later. The individual bravery of Yuri Gagarin, combined with the extraordinary vision and engineering brilliance which put him into orbit, remains a powerful symbol of how the most difficult challenges can be overcome. Space travel continues to inspire and encourage humanity to raise our sights.
It is why the traditional Cosmonautics Day marked on April 12 has now spread from former Soviet countries. The date is now officially recognised globally as the International Day of Human Space Flight. But there are very few countries where the day has more resonance than here in Kazakhstan.
This is not just because it was from the Baikonur Cosmodrome that Gagarin, as well as the first Sputnik four years before, started their epoch-making flights. It is also because Baikonur has played a major role in helping Kazakhstan build its own advanced space and science capability.
These resources, in today’s global knowledge economy, have never been more important. Last year, Kazakhstan signalled its determination, through the creation of the new Ministry of Defence and Aerospace Industry, to use them to drive the modernisation of the economy.
The aim was to bring together the expertise which, until then, had been spread across the government. Its new focus will help strengthen hi-tech industries and boost research and development as well as ensure the country’s security.
It is not just in aerospace and defence where Kazakhstan has a remarkable history. The same is true in the nuclear sphere although this time the legacy has a very dark side. Our country is still struggling with the appalling human and environmental damage caused by nearly 500 nuclear weapon tests – the reason why Kazakhstan has been such a powerful champion of nuclear disarmament.
But nuclear technology can be harnessed, of course, for peaceful as well as destructive ends. As the world struggles to limit climate change, civilian nuclear power seems certain to be a key part of the solution for delivering prosperity without adding to emissions in the atmosphere. Our national expertise, along with our role as the world’s largest producer of uranium, is key to this vital change.
These decades of experience, our security expertise and our good relations, of course, with the world’s leading nuclear powers explains why Kazakhstan was the obvious choice to host the International Atomic Energy Agency’s low enriched uranium fuel bank. By providing low enriched uranium, the bank will enable countries to develop and fuel their own civilian power programmes without raising fears about nuclear proliferation. It has rightly been described as a global “game-changer.”
Kazakhstan’s space and nuclear track record give the country an important asset. But big steps have also been taken to bolster the country’s science and technology potential right across the board. The establishment, for example of Nazarbayev University as a world-class institution, underlines the country’s ambitions as does the investment in Almaty’s Technological University.
This summer’s EXPO 2017 in Astana on sustainable energy will also give another powerful boost to the country’s scientific and technological fields. The decision to focus on future energy will see Kazakhstan host the world’s major players in this vital sector and allow ideas to be shared and new developments showcased. The pooling of scientific knowledge is one of the main goals of the Summit on Science and Technology of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation to be hosted later this year in Astana.
EXPO’s legacy will be important as well. The latest techniques have been used in preparing the exhibition site, which will help raise standards across the country’s building industry. Part of the site as well has been ear-marked to be used as a high-tech hub, as well as providing new facilities for students, staff and researchers at Nazarbayev University.
There is one other important asset, which should not be forgotten in looking at Kazakhstan’s potential in the industries of tomorrow – the country’s young generation. The investment being made in education and, in particular, science is paying off.
International studies have shown Kazakhstan’s pupils score better in math and science than, for example, their counterparts in Germany, the U.K., the United States, Poland and Australia. It is a great launch pad for the future.