Friday is a special day in space history. On this day 52 years ago, 27-year-old cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
Gagarin launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome launch complex one in his Vostok spacecraft named Ласточка (Russian for swallow).
The flight took the tiny capsule about 200 miles above the surface of the Earth. Gagarin landed 108 minutes later in a muddy potato field near Saratov, where he had attended college not long before. A life size marble statue of a waving Gagarin, helmet in hand, marks the site today.
American Allan Shepard followed Soviet Gagarin into space 23 days later. Unlike the Vostok-1 flight, Shepard’s flight lasted only 15 minutes and did not achieve orbit. After more manned suborbital flights unmanned orbital flights, the first manned orbital mission would come from American soil in February of the following year when John Glenn orbited the Earth 3 times in his Friendship 7 capsule.
Shepard would go on to be the fifth person to walk on the moon as Commander of Apollo 14. Glenn went on represent Ohio as a Senator and flew on Space Shuttle mission STS-95. Gagarin toured the world following his flight but never flew in space again. He wouldn’t live to see humans walk on the moon either. He was killed when the MiG-15UTI he flew on a training flight crashed.
April 12 was further cemented as a special day when 20 years after Gagarin’s flight, the launch of STS-1 marked the first flight of a reusable spacecraft with astronauts at the controls. The two might not share the date had there not been technical problems which delayed that first shuttle launch by a few days.
Yuri’s Night, a global celebration of space exploration, was established in 2001. This year nearly 250 parties around the world are planned for that day.
Here in the Triangle Yuri’s Night events are scheduled in Chapel Hill and Durham. The all ages event begins at 8pm at The Library on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill with free hors d’oeuvres and door prizes. All ages are welcome. The 21+ event in Durham at the Museum of Life and Science kicks off at 6pm with food trucks, a cash bar, fighting robots, and hands-on science experiments.
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.