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Yuri's Night and the Future of Space Travel

on Mon, 04/15/2013 - 00:00

“Space... the Final Frontier.”

For mankind, that Final Frontier officially opened on April 12, 1961, when Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into the realms of outer space and complete an orbit of planet Earth. Although many soon followed—including Americans Alan Shepard and John Glenn—and the likes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin found even greater glory by walking on the Moon, it was Yuri Gagarin who set the stage for these later achievements. Gagarin died in a plane crash in 1968 but still serves as a source of inspiration for a new generation that believes in the future of space travel. Every year since 2001, they gather together around the world on the anniversary of Gagarin’s historic flight and celebrate what is now known as Yuri's Night.

In 2011, marking 50 years since man first entered outer space, over 100,000 people attended 567 of those celebrations in 75 countries that spanned all seven continents. While the 2013 edition of Yuri’s Night may not have been as strong—estimates suggest 351 events in 57 countries—the city of Pittsburgh was among them as the Carnegie Science Center hosted a “sci-fi themed” gathering for the over-21 crowd. The ensuing party included a performance by local indie band Madeline and the Metropolis, a genuine 1981 DeLorean similar to the one used by Marty McFly in Back to the Future, and appearances by the Steel City Ghostbusters. Within the halls of the Carnegie Science Center itself, meanwhile, was a two-story, walk-in replica of the International Space Station and the opportunity for attendees to experience life as an astronaut with a 21-foot “zero-gravity” climbing wall.

In many ways, this combination of the fictional and factual was the perfect way to celebrate Yuri’s Night. Man’s fascination with the possibility of space travel first began with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and their classic novels From the Earth to the Moon and The First Men in the Moon, both written in the late Nineteenth Century. The decade before Yuri Gagarin circled the globe, meanwhile, is often considered the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” with such 1950s films as Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Suffice it to say that by the time the 1960s rolled around, an entire generation was ready for the combining of science fiction with science fact as man finally reached for the stars.

The 1960s also heralded one of the true classics of contemporary sci-fi, a television show that paralleled the achievements of men like Gagarin, Shepard, Glenn and Armstrong. If Yuri Gagarin proved that space travel was indeed feasible, it was Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek that showed what the future of space travel—as well as mankind itself—might look like. For Roddenberry, the Cold War rivalry of the United States and Soviet Union would someday be a thing of the past. On the USS Enterprise, Americans and Russians, men and women, humans and aliens all worked together for the common good. Many would no doubt argue that it was a utopian vision, but here we are in the Twenty First Century, a time when even a city like Pittsburgh celebrates the achievements of a Soviet cosmonaut.

While Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are real life heroes, fictional characters like James T. Kirk and Vulcan science officer Spock likewise served as inspiration for the next generation of scientists, engineers and space explorers. Being exposed to the achievements of NASA and the USS Enterprise—both through the medium of television—melded the real and fictional possibilities for the future into the minds of millions. In the end, the history of mankind’s exploration of the Final Frontier is rooted in the achievements of men like Yuri Gagarin as well as the visions of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Gene Roddenberry. Before a dream can be reached, after all, someone first has to envision that dream.

In 2001, writer/director Joss Whedon launched another science fiction television show that takes place in the far reaches of outer space, and although Firefly was cancelled after a mere eleven episodes, it has also been a source of inspiration. Members of the Pennsylvania Browncoats—as fans of the series are called—recently began a campaign to convince SpaceX, a private company that serves as the next stage of space exploration, to name their first Dragon spacecraft “Serenity” after the ship used on Firefly. More importantly, the Take Back the Sky initiative is committed to gaining public support for the continual journey into the Final Frontier.

“For over thirty years, proponents of space exploration defend the expenses involved by saying that it gives us ‘technology,’” their website states. “The truth, however, is if we were to land on Mars tomorrow, your life would not change. You’d still wake up and, if you’re lucky enough, go to work, come home, go to bed, then do it all over again the next day, because space does not ‘benefit’ us at all… space benefits our children. People didn’t cross the oceans to ‘explore,’ pioneers didn’t cross the plains to enrich STEM education back east, and astronauts sure as heck didn’t put their lives on the line ‘for mankind.’ They did it because they wanted a better future for their kids, or for other people’s kids. The true ‘spirit of exploration’ is love.”

While the words may sound as “utopian” as the original vision of Gene Roddenberry, there are millions of people who nonetheless feel the same way about the future of space exploration. Each year on April 12th, they gather in cities around the world to celebrate Yuri’s Night, often combining the fictional with the factual—because without the first, the second could never exist. And for them, even if they may not realize it, the opening theme song of the short-lived Firefly is a sort of national anthem.

“Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand. I don’t care, I’m still free—you can’t take the sky from me.”

No doubt a similar thought likewise went through the mind of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

Anthony Letizia

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