Tonight is the annual worldwide party celebrating humanity's past, present, and future in space. Commemorating the first crewed spaceflight in 1961, and the inaugural launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981, Yuri's Night is a time for education, outreach, and flat-out partying.
Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin (Ю́рий Алексе́евич Гага́рин) learned to fly in a biplane before becoming the first human to enter space, and in the same flight, also the first to orbit the Earth. From the original training group of 20 men, he was first selected into the Sochi Six for his physical and psychological endurance during training. Of the six, he and Gherman Titov (second man in space) were selected not only for their test scores, but because as short men, they fit in the cramped capsule more compactly than their peers.
An air force doctor evaluated Gagarin's temperament as modest with a racy sense of humour, smart with a fantastic memory, quick reactions, and astonishing situational awareness. Apparently all the superlatives combined well, as when the twenty trainee cosmonauts voted on who should be the first man in space, all but three voted for Gagarin. His calm temperament showed — thirty minutes before flight time his heart rate was a sedate 64 beats per minute.
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Gagarin was launched into orbit by the Vostok rocket at 06:07 UT on April 12th, 1961. The flight proceeded as planned, with automated systems doing all of the piloting. During re-entry, the service module failed to detach properly, getting dragged along during the decent for 10 minutes until the connecting wires burnt through. This, paired with the spherical shape of the re-entry module, produced substantial turbulence and high g-forces. Gagarin remained conscious, ejecting as planned and parachuted safely to the ground separately from his craft. At age 27, after 108 minutes, Yuri Gagarin was the very first human to not just enter space, but safely return to Earth.
Cosmonaut Gagarin went by the callsign Кедр ("Cedar"). His epic first-flight on Vostok 1 was his only spaceflight, although he was on the backup-crew for Soyuz 1. He protested that the Soyuz 1 launch was too soon and lacked appropriate safety precautions; when the mission crashed, he was removed from further access to the space program. He was on a training flight re-certifying as a fighter pilot when he crashed and died on 27 March 1968.
Gagarin's accomplishment was honoured by NASA even during the Cold War. During the Apollo 11 mission, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought a memorial satchel of medals commemorating Gagarin and cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov to the moon. During the Apollo 15 mission, the astronauts left the Fallen Astronaut sculpture on the moon commemorating all the astronauts and cosmonauts who had died during the Space Race, including Gagarin.
Twenty years later, on April 12th, 1981, NASA launched the first Space Shuttle, starting a new era of human spaceflight using reusable winged craft to enter and return from orbit.
Fifty years later, the importance of Vostok 1 was commemorated by the movie First Orbit. First Orbit used footage from the International Space Station following the same orbit as Vostok 1 to reconstruct what Gagarin might have seen. 2011 also marked the end of the Space Shuttle program, with Atlantis touching down for the final time on July 21st.
To celebrate Yuri's Night, look around town for an event near you. NASA Centers are holding all-night techno and technology dance parties, while astronomy clubs frequently host stargazing evenings. If no one else has something going on, use GLIMPSE360 to explore the Spitzer Telescope infrared map of the Milky Way, gather some friends for your favourite space-based movie (or First Orbit!), or experiment with online remote-telescope viewing.
Photography credit: Russian Federal Space Agency, except Fallen Astronaut statue credit NASA. For more photographs of Yuri Gagarin and the first orbit, check out this 50th anniversary gallery. Learn about the first woman in space, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, or about the development of rockets at Jet Propulsion Laboratories.