It's Yuri's Night, and the Feeling's Right
April 12th is Yuri's Night, in honor of the first human in space: Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Gagarin was an engineer and pilot of light aircraft who was amongst 20 finalists for the first manned mission to space. In a Pop Idol-esque process, Gagarin and one other made the top two, but only one would be selected. Evidently, Gagarin's personality and "modest upbringing" garnered him the prestigious gig, as the mission wouldn't just be a scientific exercise, but a PR exercise as well.
However, as he would be the very first human in space (Laika was, of course, unable to communicate her experiences to the ground crew), there was no definitive way to train for the mission, and all did not go entirely as planned.
On April 12, 1961, Gagarin successfully completed the mission and stepped into history as a national hero. From Colin Burgess' The First to Fly:
By 10:15 a.m., Gagarin was looking down on Africa, announcing that “the flight is normal” and “I withstand well the state of weightlessness.” The landing sequence began soon after. Seventy-nine minutes into the historic flight the vehicle’s retrorockets burned for forty seconds, slowing it sufficiently to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. At this time, according to plan, the eight-foot diameter descent module should have separated explosively from the accompanying equipment module, but a cable holding the two components together did not detach. The tethered spacecraft began to spin and tumble erratically, exposing less protected areas of the descent module to the intense heat of re-entry. As the temperature inside his spacecraft began to rise dramatically, Gagarin could only watch helplessly as crimson flames raged around the spacecraft. “I was in a cloud of fire rushing toward Earth,” he would later recall.
Ten minutes later the cable holding the two segments together finally burned through and sheared off with an audible bang. As the descent module continued to fall through an increasingly thicker atmosphere the wild rotation and swinging was gradually dampened, and Gagarin, who had come perilously close to losing consciousness, regained his full senses. 23,000 feet above the Saratov region of the Soviet Union the spacecraft’s hatch blew off on schedule, and moments later Gagarin was automatically ejected, finally touching down near the village of Smelovka. His spacecraft thudded down under its own parachute two miles away.
Meanwhile, the Soviet propaganda machine was in full swing, with a dramatic radio announcement bringing news to an elated nation that the cosmonaut had “safely landed in the prearranged area of the USSR” at 10:55 a.m. after an epic journey lasting 108 minutes, including just over 89 minutes in orbit. His Vostok spacecraft had reached a speed exceeding 27,000 kilometers per hour, or about three times faster than any person was known to have flown previously. Following a post-flight debriefing he returned to Moscow amid a vast outpouring of jubilation, relief and pride in his accomplishment, and was wildly feted across the Soviet Union. Gagarin would later embark on an extensive world tour, with crowds eagerly flocking to see and cheer the world’s first spaceman. It would be some thirty years before any news of his perilous re-entry would be revealed.
The official name of the holiday is Cosmonautics Day, started by the USSR in 1962. This event has morphed into a global hipster phenomenon, thanks to Loretta Hidalgo, George Whitesides, and Trish Garner -- not just about partying, the event draws attention to advancements in space-exploration science, and the culture and art which it inspires.
Watch for the distinctive red button.
If you're looking to party like it's 1961, you can find a soirée here at the Yuri's Night Official Site.
Update: today CNET has a brief interview with NASA's Pete Worden, who went big at pne of NASA's Yuri's Night celebrations:
Q: Why is NASA hosting this event?
Worden: Tonight, there are at least four NASA centers doing it. The fundamental issue facing NASA is that we're embarking on the most significant step that has ever been done in space. The next step is settling the solar system. The U.S. space exploration program is a key part of that, as well as efforts around the world. NASA has always played a key role in other critical issues that face us as well, such as aeronautics, all the way up to understanding the secrets of the universe and addressing climate change.