April 12th is truly a day marking our connection to space. It is, of course, the anniversary of when the first human blasted off into space. It is also the anniversary of the first space shuttle mission. And, interestingly enough, as I have noted before in other forums, it is also the anniversary of when Galileo was first brought before the Vatican to justify his views on the universe.
On April 12th, 1961 a young Russian named Yuri Gagarin, after waiting for hours atop the Vostok 1 rocket, finally shouted "Lets' go" to his boss Sergei Korolev. With trepidation the launch control button was pressed, blasting a new era in the story of the human race.
The event is remembered around the world in different ways. In Russia April 12th is "Cosmonautics Day" which is marked by ceremonies not only in the space community, but also in the political world as well. We can expect starting today and over the weekend, grandiose promises from Russian politicians on the never-ending (and rarely honored) support for the Russian space effort. This Saturday, in fact, I am speaking before a group of Russian-American students—so the interest in space, and the tradition of marking this day, continues among those of Russian origin.
In America the day has turned into a fun celebration, with the New Space community getting together under the umbrella of “Yuri’s Night.” (Everything we do in America is so informal). Yuri’s Night celebrates not only the Russian achievement, but also that of the STS-1 mission, which blasted off on April 12th, 1981.
But April 12th is also the anniversary of another event connected to our understanding of space. It was on April 12th, 1623, that Galileo was brought before the Vatican Inquisition to defend his beliefs supporting the Copernican theory. The Italian astronomer found himself up against the political machine of his day, and was forced to recant his belief that the earth moved around the sun.
Though the three events are separated by almost four hundred years, it seems to me that one common thread is the personal courage involved in pushing society into space. Galileo pushed up against the status quo and suffered. Yuri Gagarin willingly blasted off without understanding whether the human body could survive in the zero gravity of space. And John Young and Robert Crippen rode, for the first and only time, in an untested new manned vehicle.
Soon enough the space shuttle program will be history. My suggestion is to broaden our celebrations on the 12th of April to pay tribute to all scientists, engineers and explorers who have risked it all—no matter the date--to advance the exploration of space.