April 12, 2011
What is it about April 12 that makes momentous things happen?
Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War, the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch, and the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight.
Centuries from now, the last of these may be considered the most important.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit around Earth proved—though most test pilots had never doubted it—that human beings could survive in space. From then on, the 27-year-old military pilot was a cultural icon, a fate he probably never envisioned and didn’t always enjoy. Yet, on the eve of his launch, he was aware that “all I have done and lived for has been done and lived for for this moment.”
Here’s some essential reading and a few assorted links for the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight:
- Space historian Anatoly Zak’s Vostok 1 page, complete with an interactive map of the flight.
- Read Chapter 3 of Soviet space pioneer Boris Chertok’s memoir for a behind-the-scenes perspective on the world’s first spaceflight:
“I must confess that after seeing these potential cosmonauts for the first time, I was disappointed. I remember them as lieutenants who, because of their youth, looked alike and did not appear very serious. Since the war years, I’d had a completely different mental image of the concept of “fighter pilot.” If someone had told us that several years later, one after the other, these boys would become Heroes of the Soviet Union, and some even generals, I would have answered that that would only be possible during wartime.”
- Gagarin’s eloquent recorded message before his flight.
- An article about “The Family He Left Behind,” from our current issue.
- Blog postings by historian Andrew Jenks, who’s writing a book about Gagarin.
- Gagarin’s flight has inspired many artists and musicians over the years, from Pablo Picasso to guitarist Brian May of Queen. My current favorite nod to Yuri is “Gagarin, (I Loved You)” by the Russian group Underwud.
- Finally, if you do only one thing to mark the Gagarin anniversary, watch “First Orbit,” below, which was just released today. Documentary filmmaker Christopher Riley came up with a simple, brilliant conception: He asked European astronaut Paolo Nespoli, who’s currently living on the International Space Station, to film a full orbit roughly matching the orbit that Gagarin followed on April 12, 1961. Add the rarely-heard radio conversations between Gagarin and ground controllers, an appropriately ethereal soundtrack, and you’re transported to that moment 50 years ago, when the age of human spaceflight began.