April 16, 2018

Yuri's Night

On Yuri's Night, we celebrate exploration and togetherness. However, we are just in the infancy of human spaceflight. If our future is to be among the stars, we need to be mindful the cost of turning back too soon.

Yuri's Night is a global space party held on April 12th.  While we celebrate exploration and togetherness, we are also still in the infancy of human spaceflight.  This date was also consequential in 18th century exploration and serves as a reminder of grit, determination, and not resting in one's reputation or previous accomplishments.

On the cool morning of April 12 1961, a man left the desert steppes of Baikonur atop a pillar of flame to become the first human to sail beyond the surface of our pale blue orb.  This man was Yuri Gagarin, the son of a carpenter and a milkmaid with a smile that "lit up the cold war".

Yuri Gagarin, courtesy of Wikipedia

It was this same day April 12 1981, 20 years later, that space explorers John Young and Robert Crippen flew the first mission on the iconic Space Shuttle Columbia.

John Young and Robert Crippen, courtesy of Wikipedia

The two world powers opposed to each other during the Cold War and the Space Race indeed share a common anniversary.  Celebrating this venture into space is a worthy first step in finding more common ground as fellow humans rather than adversaries.  This is how Yuri's Night, the world space party, was born.

Due to recent developments in spaceflight, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of people living and working in space within a few short years.  Just like ages of exploration in the past, the culture and civilization we bring with us in our exploration of space will have a profound effect on the challenges and successes that future generations will face.

Much of Yuri's Night centers around the sheer awesomeness of human spaceflight and how such a lofty goal of expanding humanity brings all peoples together.  However, I'd like to highlight another aspect that we should be reminded to avoid…

Turning back too soon.

The Space Shuttle Columbia was named after Columbia Rediviva, the first American vessel to circumnavigate the globe.  It was captained by a one-eyed explorer who had previously served as a naval officer in the American Revolutionary War, Robert Gray.

On this same day, April 12 1788, British fur trader John Meares, in the face of stormy weather and fog, turned back just north of discovering the Columbia River, naming it Cape Disappointment.  As Meares was turning back north toward Nootka Island[1], he passed Robert Gray (captaining the Columbia Rediviva) who then encountered this large river but did not sail across or enter it due to tides.  Gray vowed to return.  Four years later, Gray sailed upstream (coincidentally on May 11th, my birthday) to explore and trade with natives.  He claimed it for the United States, and named it the Columbia River after his ship.

Columbia Rediviva sailing up the Columbia River, courtesy of Wikipedia

On this same day, April 12 1811, an expedition financed by John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company established Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River.  This was the first community established by the United States on the Pacific coast.

On Yuri's Night, we celebrate exploration and togetherness.  However, we are just in the infancy of human spaceflight.  If our future is to be among the stars, we need to be mindful the cost of turning back too soon.

[1]The actions John Meares took during exploration in 1788-89 (as well as his false claims) sparked an international crisis between Spain and Great Britain known as the Nootka Crisis.  One of the results of the Nootka Convention to address this dispute was to assert that claims of land and discoveries needed to be backed up by actual occupation or settlement.  This has direct legal implications for humanity's future in space.