On this day in 1961, 27-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, become the first human in space. Also on this day in 1981, NASA launched the first space shuttle mission, in part due to a two-day delay to resolve a technical problem.
Gagarin returned a hero but never flew in space again. The only activity he saw again in the program was as a part of the backup crew for the ill-fated Soyuz 11 mission. He later served as deputy training director of cosmonaut training. While going through the process to re-certify as a fighter pilot in 1968, Gagarin and his flight instructor were killed when their MIG crashed. Both are interred in Red Square along with the crew of the Soyuz 11.
Thursday’s anniversary was established in 1962 as Cosmonautics Day in the Soviet Union and is marked each year with celebrations and parades. Last year, the 50th anniversary of that first flight, the United Nations declared the day International Day of Human Space Flight.
Filmmakers celebrated the anniversary of the flight by partnering with the European Space Agency and astronauts aboard the International Station to film “what Yuri saw” along the same orbital path Vostok 1 took. The 90-minute film "First Orbit" can be viewed online and includes subtitled recordings of Gagarin.
“Yuri’s Night” celebrations are planned again this year in locations world wide as varied as observatories, breweries, museums, schools, cafes, dance clubs, and even a research station at the South Pole. Events include parties, concerts, art installations, space themed costume parties, trivia contests, educational outreach and dancing under the stars of planetariums around the globe.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.