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Yuri Gagarin and his Vostok 3KA-3 space capsule

Today is the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic trip to outer space aboard a Vostok 3KA-3 space capsule launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (in what is now Kazakhstan). Yuri’s call sign was “Кедр” (“Kedr” in Roman letters, which means Siberian Pine). He was in orbit for 108 minutes. Gagarin was chosen for this mission because of mental acuity, physical toughness, and his affability–which elicited the admiration and respect of his fellow cosmonauts. Additionally his tiny size was an asset in the cramped capsule (he was only 5’2”). He was the first human being to enter outer space. Our kind has been spacefaring now for half a century.

This event is celebrated around the world with a (fledgling) holiday known as Yuri’s night. It is a time to reflect on the milestones of space exploration and to drink to all the heroes of the world’s various space programs (especially Gagarin who died in a 1968 training flight). While I might prefer such an international space celebration to mark an American space milestone, there is no need to be churlish.  There is plenty of space to go around, and the tiny grinning Gagarin makes an engaging hero. He lived to fly.  If a fiery death in the sky was the price of such ambition then he was willing to pay up.

Vostok1 Lifting off on April 12th, 1961

The fiftieth anniversary of the first space flight is a worthy cause for celebration, but it also gives us a lot of missing milestones to think about.  Aside from the rickety bucket of bolts which is the International Space Station, we are all still here.  There are no moon bases.  There has been no Mars trip. We have never ventured to Ganymede and we may never go.  We lack energy sources which would allow us to undertake great ventures beyond this world. Although the robots currently exploring the solar system are quietly amassing a vast array of data and some very bright people are busy analyzing it, space exploration does not seem to be a priority right now. Our politicians would rather slather money on entitlement programs instead of funding a more assertive space program.  The bankers and industrialists in charge of private industry seem only fitfully interested in space research and exploration (indeed, they sometimes barely seem interested in anything worthwhile).

I haven't forgotten you Virgin Galactic. You have done well.

I am not demanding humankind establish an interstellar empire (well, actually I am, but I am asking quietly because physics is scary and space is extremely…spacious). There are some hard truths about the physical universe that we are butting up against here. Our failure to move further faster is partly a problem with engineering, technology, and materials.  Who knows though? Somewhere someone might currently be making some breakthrough which will solve all of this.  A glorious space age might be right around the corner, but we need to act.  We need resources to go toward blue sky research and scientific discovery. We need missions and objectives which arouse the finest passions in tomorrow’s explorers and scientists. Other than vague talk of private spaceflights and maybe a Mars mission we don’t have any dazzling targets we are aiming at. Our shuttle program is ending and nothing is replacing it. Our imagination is failing and our celestial dreams are winking out.

I would like the heroic accomplishments in space to lie in the future not merely in the past   Why not join the Planetary Society, or draft a letter to your legislator?  Yuri Gagarin was the first person to leave Earth, if only for a brief time.  More people should venture to space this century rather than less. We all need to take bolder better steps to ensure there is a future for humanity in the skies beyond this world. In half a century we have only just dipped our toes into the heavens.

The Milky Way Galaxy from Earth

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