Today, when a space shuttle takes off or a Soyuz rocket launches people towards the International Space Station, it barely makes the news. It’s become ordinary, commonplace, to have people in orbit around the Earth, blasting off and landing without much fuss or fanfare.
50 years ago today, the first of those people, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, was launched into orbit, an accomplishment that even the New York Times finds worthy of remembering this day.
Imagine, a man in space, something no one had ever done. I’m old enough that I remember following the the Space Race, learning the names of the Mercury Seven (Shepard, Grissom, Cooper; front row: Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter), and watching the Apollo launches, hoping that nothing would go wrong. In July of 1969, I remember sitting close to the TV with my family, watching the grainy black-and-white video of Armstrong coming down the ladder and setting foot on the moon. I don’t know which was more amazing: that there were two men on the moon or that we were watching video of the whole thing. Technology, although I didn’t realize it then, would continue to pull at me until I finally gave in and became first a geek then, late in life, a space geek.
30 years ago today, the first Space Shuttle to make orbit took off, the Columbia (which was later destroyed over Texas in 2003). In only 20 years, humans had gone from nothing to sending an oversized plane into orbit with a crew that could number from 4 to 7 people. Now that is progress. It shows what we can do when we have a clear goal, a lot of commitment, and dogged determination to make things happen.
Yuri Gagarin died in a jet crash in 1968, so he never saw men land on the moon, or witnessed a Soyuz launch, or a Shuttle landing. He never saw the International Space Station, which at this moment is hosting 3 cosmonauts, two US astronauts, and an Italian astronaut. As Yuri sat in his tiny Vostok 1, I wonder if he imagined the places we would go in 20 years, in 50 years. Who knows where we’ll be in 100 years?