On Apr. 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin chiseled his name into history forever by becoming the first human to see the Earth from space. Drifting above the planet’s surface in the Soviets’ Vostok 1 capsule, he reflected to ground control: “The Earth is blue. How wonderful. It is amazing.” Since Yuri’s journey, this rare view has been passionately sought and shared by some privileged men and women. It is Yuri’s milestone in human history and the achievements of humanity in space since that time that are the subjects of Yuri’s Night, a holiday and worldwide celebration of space.
What exactly is space? Space is everything. The whole universe falls within our conception of it. Our concrete minds will say that space is galaxies, stars, planets, gas and dust, but it’s also a concept — a large and empty void that is marked by silent grandeur. We are stirred by images brought from the corners of the universe of strangely twisting, burning galaxies and of majestic planets, striped and ringed. Even if we only glance skyward on a clear night, we can sense the presence of the stars. Space holds mysteries that challenge us to explore. Some say that space is a blank slate where the past is of no consequence, a place where humanity can learn to live and start anew.
Space is important to us. It supports integral components of our civilization, even if we are not aware of it: entertainment, communication, weather prediction and GPS. It allows for telescopes and observatories, the exploration of the solar system and experiments in zero-gravity, not to mention the forthcoming industries of space tourism and habitation.
But beyond the mere practical benefits, space can inspire us. The emotions we attach to space can be tapped to unite individuals and motivate diverse groups of people. An easy example of this power was the Apollo missions. Hundreds of thousands of engineers, scientists and laborers devoted themselves to the singular purpose of delivering a human ambassador to the moon. This pursuit cost billions of dollars, led to advances in electronics and materials and persuaded a generation of children to pursue careers in science and mathematics.
Students for the Exploration and Development of Space is holding a Yuri’s Night event on Tuesday, Apr. 14 from 7 to 10 p.m. in the Rackham Amphitheatre. With this event, we hope to excite passion and motivate a new generation to pursue goals in the science of space. We believe this pursuit can lead, as it has before, to innovation and technological breakthroughs that can benefit all. We will focus on the commercial side of space exploration and development, where we believe the true future of space lies.
Governments, of course, should continue (and increase) their funding of science missions, interplanetary probes and great space observatories. But commercial space, which some say is in the midst of a new space race, shows the greatest promise to bring space to the doorstep of the ordinary citizen. In such a quest, innovation and technology will advance, too. Tomorrow’s event will include a screening of the documentary film Orphans of Apollo, a dinner and reception where student groups around campus will display their purpose and activities — some will bring actual hardware from current projects — and a talk on the Google Lunar X PRIZE. So come to the Rackham Amphitheatre to hear an incredible story about private human spaceflight and learn more about how you can aid in the effort to bring people to space – or perhaps travel to space yourself. Come in order to celebrate the legacy of Yuri Gagarin and the unknown power of space.
Gregory Wagner is an Engineering senior.