Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April 12: a Historic Day for Space Exploration

April 12 is a historic day in the annals of manned spaceflight as it is this date that marks a pair of historic firsts: Yuri Gagarin's becoming the first human in orbit (1961) and the first flight of a space Shuttle (1981). All over the world, people are celebrating Gagarin's first sojourn into the final frontier and in America, people are also celebrating the start of NASA's longest-running manned mission program, the space shuttle, which is set to draw to a close this year.
It was on April 12, 1961, that humanity became a space-faring race. For 108 glorious minutes, planet Earth was minus one inhabitant as Yuri Gagarin was completing one orbit around the planet that had been our species' and, so far as we know, life's only home in all the cosmos. When Gagarin touched down just past an hour and a half after liftoff, the world was a changed place as was our place in the universe. No more would man be a species tied to a planet, we finally had the means to journey back to the stars from which we came.

20 years after Gagarin, in 1981, manned missions into space had become routine, with 'routine' being a very relative term. So, in the age of economizing as national pride was no longer at stake (America won the space race in 1969 with Apollo 11), NASA had been looking for ways to enter space on the cheap via a re-usable space transport system. The result of this goal: the space shuttle, which would launch like a rocket and land like a plane. When shuttle Columbia lifted off on April 12, 1981, everyone at NASA was on pins and needles as they waited to see how the most complex machine ever built (over 1 million moving parts) acted in a real life mission. The rest, as they say, is history as the space shuttle program would go about ferrying astronauts back and forth from Earth to space and back again for 30 years.
For space enthusiasts the world over, today is a time to celebrate mankind's short, yet epic journey into the vastness of space. However, while looking back at past achievements is perfectly fine, the real goal of space exploration should be the future. Today, with the United States having ambitious plans to reach Mars by 2030 with the help of, for the first time, private industry, there is no reason why this generation shouldn't get to witness the historic moments that those of the past got to experience 50 and 30 years ago today.

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