The First Spaceman
I was alive fifty years ago, but I was more concerned about cartoons and baseball than the Russians beating us into space. The rest of the world was watching though as Yuri Gagarin was buckled into a tin-looking Soviet spacecraft, where a dog had ridden just two weeks earlier, and blasted into earth's orbit. He was the first man in space and it proved that the Russians were winning the space race.
April 12, 1961 is the date in history that the United States woke up for the second time. When Sputnik was launched, we were shocked. When Gagarin was launched into space and returned safely to earth, history records that “we” were furious. The Soviets had beaten us again and it only hardened the resolve of the infant NASA to win the next battle, the first man on the moon.
It is coincidental that on this day that we remember the first man in space, we are also celebrating the anniversary of the first U.S. space shuttle launch. On April, 12, 1981 Columbia lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, establishing another first for the American space program. It circled the earth 37 times and 54 hours and, remarkably, landed like an airplane in the California desert.
Two significant space victories and the same calendar day, April 12th. As someone who grew up watching the space race, I love these dates. It makes me think, “Where was I when the first man circled the earth?” or “I remember that first shuttle flight!” For those of us who grew up in the 60's, 70's and 80's, space exploration is part of our history, too. We tried freeze dried ice cream and played with the first patch of “Velcro”. Space made those things a reality. We even got permission to use an electronic calculator in our high school math classes. It was the new thing, spawned by the first computers that helped us fly into space.
So, on this anniversary of the first man in space, let's remember this era of exploration. You can even buy a piece of it. On Tuesday, Sotheby's auction house in New York City will auction off the space capsule that preceeded Yuri Gagarin into space. It's the only Russian capsule outside of Russia. It is small and primitive, about the size of a large car and it weighs 1800 lbs. It looks like a beach ball. The estimated auction price is between $2 million and $10 million. We will also find out this week which U.S. museums will get to display the first three retired space shuttles. With the future of NASA in jeopardy, these brushes with history may be the only thing we have to teach the next generation about the competition to escape earth's gravity.