Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy Yuri's Night, Everyone!

Today is the 50th anniversary of humankind's leap into space. Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin, the small (5'2") son of peasant farmers, strapped into his seat on Vostok I and said, "Off we go!" It was just four years after the Soviets had launched Sputnik, the first unmanned spacecraft. Think of that for one minute. Four years from unmanned craft to manned space flight. Four years! This was after numerous monkeys, dogs and mice had been afforded the dubious honor of attempting to discern whether space flight was inherently dangerous. (It was to most of them.)

So there was no reason for Gagarin's pulse rate to be an amazing 64 beats per minute as he sat in the cockpit of his rocket. Shortly after launch, Gagarin could see his -- and our -- home planet. "The Earth is blue! How wonderful! It is amazing!" he said to ground control personnel who could barely hear him.

Gagarin never flew a spacecraft again; he was considered too precious as a hero of the Soviet Union to take that kind of chance. It is the height of irony that he died in a MiG jet that crashed, according to the investigation, because another plane flew too close too fast, the turbulence created causing Gagarin's plane to spin out of control.

Gagarin understood his celebrity, but he maintained a humble attitude. As he was being feted with a parade in Manchester, England, after his flight, his handlers requested that the roof of the convertible in which he was riding be closed because of the rain. Gagarin said, "If they can stand in the rain to see me, I can certainly tolerate the rain so they can!"

As of today, there have been cosmonauts/astronauts from Afghanistan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Romania, Mongolia, Syria, the Ukraine, the US, Italy, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Viet Nam, France, West Germany, India, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Mexico, the UK, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Slovakia, South Africa, Israel, China, Brazil, Iran, Sweden, Malaysia and South Korea.

The space program is the great equalizer. It has taught the world that it is possible for humanity to work together toward a common goal. It has taught the world that the challenges of science do not see race or culture or nationality but the promise of a future where all strive together for the betterment and enlightenment of humankind.

And for that, we have, in no small part, Yuri Gagarin to thank.