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Yuri Gagarin, second from left, toured the world as a global celebrity after becoming the first man to travel in space.The Associated Press

When Yuri Gagarin completed the first manned flight into outer space, it ratcheted up the pressure in an already-tense race between the world's greatest superpowers for supremacy in the cosmos and helped prompt the United States to focus its energy on going to the moon within a decade.

Fifty years later, the announcement by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that his country was looking to expand its space program amid reports of a planned lunar base as a stepping-stone to Mars elicited little response from the rest of the world.

The contrast is indicative of all that's changed in the half-century since Mr. Gagarin's flight. Where achieving milestones in outer space was once one of the great policy drivers for the world's two most powerful countries, exploration now is much slower, more incremental, measured.

President Barack Obama last year cancelled American plans to return to the moon in favour of landing on an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the decade or two afterward, much longer timelines than the ones favoured by John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Much modern space exploration is done just as effectively using unmanned probes and powerful telescopes instead of flesh-and-blood explorers.

It's not that the technology to send people far into space isn't there. It's simply a matter of will, says Jaymie Matthews, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of British Columbia.

"All of that rapid progress was not motivated by technology, not motivated by science, not motivated by economics. It was motivated by politics," he says.

For Mr. Obama, however, economics - or, at the very least, fiscal prudence - may be playing a bigger part in his calculations than politics. As he leads a debt-burdened government and tries to breathe life into a flagging economy, landing people on other worlds probably does not seem like a smart way to spend scarce dollars.

In a further sign of economic pragmatism, Mr. Obama has also suggested that, rather than having NASA build the next generation of high-tech space equipment, the space agency will rely on the private sector to develop the space ships, with the government renting space on board for astronauts.

Dr. Matthews suggests that Mr. Obama's goal of landing on an asteroid also has more economic value than returning to the moon: asteroids can contain precious metals such as titanium and platinum that could present mining opportunities.

In a sign of just how much things have changed since 1961, when NASA retires its space shuttles this year, the United States will have to rent space on the Russian Soyuz craft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, at a cost of $63-million per person. The United States did something similar after the Columbia disaster in 2003.

This practical arrangement does have its detractors.

"[Russia]agreed to give us so many seats at a fixed price, but they raised the price once we were no longer flying," said Mark Brown, a former astronaut. "I'm very concerned that we're again putting ourselves in kind of a hostage situation, where once the shuttle fleet is retired and on display in different museums, they can charge anything they want."

Others, however, expressed hope that Mr. Obama's plan to encourage private companies, which plan to make money by offering space flights to paying passengers, would ultimately help reduce the cost of leaving Earth.

"The Holy Grail, where we want to be headed as a nation, will be routine, reliable, responsive access to space," said Michael Heil, president of the Ohio Aerospace Institute. "That's what these private companies are doing. They're helping to reduce the cost of getting into space."

Of course, pragmatism isn't the only thing driving space exploration today. Russia's ambitions as well as those of China, which has publicly announced its plan to go to the moon and Mars, have more to do with a desire to assert themselves on the world stage as with any realistic gain.

And besides the technological strides enabled by the development of the space race - computers, for instance - there is another, decidedly more ephemeral reason to move people beyond Earth's atmosphere.

"There's an intangible element of inspiration to having people in space," said Dr. Matthews. "The question is: what is it today that can inspire young people?"

With a report from The New York Times