There will be tens of thousands of space geeks celebrating in 50-plus venues on all seven continents: from Planetarium Stuttgart in Germany to the Indian Heights School, New Delhi, India to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC to the Spruce Goose Coffee Shop in Medellin Antioquia, Columbia. Yes, there will even be a toast to Gagarin at the B3 Lounge at South Pole, Antarctica!
That Wednesday morning in 1961, at 9:07 a.m., a Vostok-K rocket with the Vostok 1 spaceship propelled a 27-year-old former fighter pilot into eternal fame, and started a Space Race between the Superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States.
Five decades later, Russians and Americans work side-by-side aboard the International Space Station 250 miles above Earth.
And today, the very same launch pad from which Gagarin’s Vostok 1 was launched is still being used to launch the manned Soyuz TMZ spacecraft to the space station.
Scheduled to blast off April 20th are Expedition 51 crew members Fyodor Yurchikhin and Jack Fischer. They will join Expedition 50 crew members NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who will take over command of the station, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet and cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.
To make room aboard the ISS, three spacefliers are scheduled to return to Earth on April 10. They are U.S. Commander Shane Kimbrough and Russian Flight Engineers Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko, who have been living in space since October 19.
Fifty-six years after Gagarin’s first flight, living in space has become a daily routine that is taken for granted. It’s no surprise that today’s astronauts and cosmonauts are unknown to all but the avid space geeks.
Reminders of the unforgiving environment of outer space are the in-flight deaths of 18 space adventurers aboard the USSR’s Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11, and the American Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
Gagarin’s spaceflight is so crude by today’s standards that modern-day astronauts (and cosmonauts) might find it to be crazy to attempt.
The space capsule of Vostok was designed for a ballistic reentry, and once safely through the fiery ride through the atmosphere, Gagarin ejected from the spacecraft and landed with his own parachute.
The fact that Gagarin didn’t ride his spacecraft down to the surface was a secret the Soviets kept for decades. Gagarin and the six cosmonauts to fly Vostok, including the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkov, were all ejected and parachuted to safety.
In fact, the exact details of the early years of the Russian space program were shielded from the rest of the world. It was only after the historic detente agreements of the 1990s, and the crumbling of the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, that the truth came out.
Even today, as astronauts and cosmonauts cross-train at their space centers, they share more stories about the history of early spaceflight.
The first American to orbit Earth was the late John Glenn, who did land safely inside his Mercury spacecraft called “Friendship 7” after three orbits in February 1962. Glenn was deemed by NASA such a valuable spokesman for the Space Race that he was taken off the active flight roster and sent on goodwill trips around the world, fearing he could be killed in future missions.
That wasn’t the case for Gagarin. He was back-up pilot to the ill-fated Soyuz 1 spaceflight that killed his friend Vladimir Komorov during reentry in April 1967. Gagarin then joined Alexi Leonov as the two cosmonauts who were tapped to go to the Moon.
Everything changed on March 27, 1968 when Gagarin himself was killed when a two-seater MiG-15 fighter jet he was flying with Vladimir Seryogin, crashed outside a small town near Moscow during a routine training flight. Gagarin’s ashes were placed in a niche in the Kremlin wall, while his hometown of Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin in his honor.
Why Gagarin’s fighter jet crashed has been the subject of wild theories for more than 40 years. Everything from being hung-over to UFOs snatching him have circulated, with a failed jet part being the most believable.
In 2013, Leonov, the first human to walk in space in 1965, offered the final answer from declassified files: a second, experimental jet, the Su-15 jet, mistakenly flew too close to Gagarin’s jet, around 2,000 feet. The large aircraft’s jet wake actually rolled over the MiG-15, Gagarin lost control and fatally crashed in a forest.
Leonov, now 82, is free to reveal declassified information from the early days of Russia’s space program. This includes his role as the man chosen to land on the Moon in a Zond spacecraft, the size of an old telephone booth with a rocket. He was to scoop up samples, take photos and get back inside for a quick blast-off to the orbiting mother ship. He has publicly called the Zond spacecraft a suicide mission.
Two names will last an eternity in the history of spaceflight: Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. Most Americans will remember John Glenn, the first to orbit Earth-and ride his spacecraft to an ocean splashdown.
The Russian is the first man in space 56 years ago on April 12, 1961; the American is the first man to walk on the Moon just eight years later on July 20, 1969.
Meanwhile, there have been 520 other humans blasted off Earth into the great unknown of outer space in the first half-century of the Space Age. With certainly more to come.
So enjoy “Yuri’s Night” and just how far the Space Age has matured in the 21st Century. To see all the celebrations around the world—and in America—google the Internet “yurisnight.net!”