April 12 marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight, by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, just eight years before humans set foot on the moon.
Get up, circle the Earth, and get back in time for tea? The Russian cosmonaut’s voyage lasted 108 minutes, 89 minutes of which were in space. He orbited the Earth once in his Vostok 1 capsule (at the blazingly fast speed of 27,400 kilometers per hour, or about 17,025 miles per hour) and achieved a maximum altitude of 203 miles before returning to his terrestrial home. He experienced more in two hours than many will in their lifetimes. Keeping with the space race, the United States launched its own first manned voyage less than a month after Gagarin’s venture.
Being the first man in space afforded Gagarin with a unique perspective on the life contained on our pale, blue home. He he commented upon return from his mission:
Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it.
There’s no shortage of Gagarin fanfare scheduled for April 12, 2011. Fans of the first cosmonaut can view a video chronicling Gagarin’s life on YouTube. The film – called First Orbit – is free to download and share. More diehard fans can attend one of the many Yuri’s Night celebrations occurring globally. Visit the Yuri’s Night web site to find the one closest to you. Or … feeling creative? Then why not build your own toy rocket and fly it in honor of Gagarin’s triumph?
Yuri Gagarin was born in 1934 and worked alongside his parents for much of his childhood on a communal farm in Russia. He suffered through Nazi occupation during World War II before enrolling in a technical school and learning to fly. He joined and quickly ascended through the ranks of the Soviet Air Force before he was selected from 19 other candidates to fly in space. Gagarin died in a plane crash in March 1968, a little more than a year short of the Apollo moon landing.
Can’t get enough of Yuri? Check out NASA’s archival footage of Gagarin taking off
Eric Villard is a writer who enjoys anything related to science and technology, from the newest geeky gadget to the latest Hubble unveiling. He always tries to keep one eye above the horizon. To him, discovery is the essence of mankind. Without it we'd still be huddled around fires in dank caves, with sticks and stones for tools and mud and rock walls for ink and parchment.