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Look, Up in the Sky…

Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 15:30 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Yuri Gagarin headlineToday is a dual anniversary in the history of human space flight. The anniversary everyone is talking about is of the flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space. In retrospect, with the Cold War long over and knowing of the string of pioneering achievements by NASA that Gagarin’s achievement would ignite, it is now possible for even Americans to celebrate the milestone. In fact, it could be argued that American dominance of lunar exploration wouldn’t have been possible without Gagarin; if “the Russians” hadn’t beaten the United States into space, who knows if we’d have had the collective motivation to weather the tumultuous next eight years that included the deaths of three astronauts in a launchpad fire.

It’s funny how quickly people come to accept monumental achievements as routine. Less than twelve years after Gagarin’s flight and barely three years after Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the moon, space travel was old hat. The Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 was the last manned lunar landing. The Apollo-Soyuz joint US/Soviet project of 1975 was newsworthy more because it brought together in space two nations that were bitter rivals on Earth. The USSR’s Salyut space station was eclipsed by NASA’s near-disaster with Apollo 13, and the US’s Skylab garnered more attention when it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and broke apart in 1979 than during its six years in orbit.

Which brings us to the anniversary no one is talking about. By 1981, space travel was passé. But that changed with the NASA’s Space Transportation System program and the inaugural flight of the Space Shuttle, the world’s first successful reusable spacecraft. In development at since the late 1960s, its maiden voyage lifted off on this date thirty years ago, on what was the twentieth anniversary of the Gagarin flight. Legendary astronaut John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, was the first shuttle commander. (Film audiences would know him as the character in Apollo 13 who helped Ken Mattingly figure out how to get enough power for the crippled spacecraft to descend from orbit.)

The shuttle Columbia launched early on a Sunday morning and landed two days later. I don’t recall watching the liftoff, which was early on a Sunday morning, but I vividly recall being glued to the TV for the landing, even though it was at a time when I would have been in school, according to the Kennedy Space Center’s STS-1 page. Hmmm…

Though we now look back on the groundbreaking achievements of space exploration with universal admiration, this essay by Megan Prelinger of The Atlantic points out that human space exploration was not necessarily widely embraced in its earliest days. Now as then, debate rages about the value of continued human space flight and what form, if any, it should take. No doubt in another 50 years we will wonder, as we do now about the beginnings of the space program, what all the controversy was about.

On a related note, while I was looking up dates and facts for this post, I was amused to learn that American astronaut Cady Coleman and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson teamed up to commemorate today’s anniversary by recording a flute duo of the song “Bourree,” which Tull was reportedly playing at a concert when humans first set foot on the moon.

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