On April 12, 1961 Russian Space Program made history by turning science fiction into science fact, or sci-fa if you will, when cosmonaut Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin became the first man to be launched into outer space and orbit the Earth. Space exploration is something we take for granted; we get new images of far off black holes and nebulae every day now. It’s no big deal, right?
But imagine what it must have been like for the world in 1961. Imagine what it must have been like for Yuri! Imagine sitting in a bulky orange suit with a fish bowl-like dome strapped to your head, in a bullet-shaped rocket that was made up of just a few thin sheets of metal hammered together and strapped to enough volatile fuel to break orbit.
The risks involved were well known. The Russians had been trying to launch a rocket into orbit for the past year, and there were notable failures. The Space Race with the U.S. led to some pretty incredible leaps in rocket science that led to the Russia’s Vostok 1 mission that would change everything. That day, 27 year-old Yuri had no idea if he was going to make history or just be another footnote of failure. His courage alone made him a national hero. The success of the mission made him a planetary hero.
That was just 50 years ago today. Half a century ago we could barely break orbit. Now we have an international cooperation of men and women living in space. We launch robots to other planets, we send probes clear across our galaxy to capture images of the wonders of humanity’s next great frontier. When you think about how far we’ve come in so short a time, it actually is a big deal. It’s huge. And it’s all us. We’re a pretty amazing race of people. We’re capable of terrible things, true. But we’re also capable of pretty terrific ones too.
Spasiba, Yuri, for your courage. Humanity hasn’t been the same since.