I tore off the page of my cartoon desk calendar Tuesday and grinned. It was a drawing of a caveman pointing to a chalkboard with the word “yesterday” written on it. He was asking his class “Can anyone tell me what happened on this date?” and the caption read, “The first history class.”
It was somewhat serendipitous that that particular cartoon should appear on a date rich in history and a reminder of how far we’ve come and yet how far short we’ve come up.
Yesterday, April 12, marked the 50th anniversary of the first human to be shot into space. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rocketed into orbit on that date in 1961 aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft for a 108-minute orbit of the Earth, beating the United States in the fledgling space race.
Only four years earlier the USSR had been the first to put a manmade object into Earth orbit with Sputnik 1, a 200-pound satellite that beeped merrily along while we here in the U.S. worried that soon the Soviets would be pointing nukes at us from orbit. We had good reason. That same year, on April 12, 1957, the Soviets had conducted the first atmospheric test of a nuclear bomb.
Both were remarkable achievements for their times. Exactly 100 years prior to Gagarin’s launch into orbit the American Civil War had begun with the April 12 shelling of Fort Sumter by the Confederacy. In that short century we went from launching crude projectiles at each other to launching humans into space and splitting the atom.
When Gagarin climbed aboard the Vostok, only 50 years had passed since the first nonstop airplane flight on April 12, 1911, between London and Paris. And it was just 20 years after Gagarin’s flight that, on April 12, 1981, the first space shuttle, Columbia, roared into orbit from the U.S.
Which brings us to April 2011. On the 29th of this month, the space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to lift off on its final flight. Then, on June 28, shuttle Atlantis is slated to launch on what will be the last space shuttle flight before all are retired to museums, effectively ending, at least for the foreseeable future, manned American space flights.
In the near future, America will rely on our old Cold War adversaries, the Russians, to get our astronauts into space by booking seats on Soyoz flights to the International Space Station. For those of us who grew up during the space race and expected the U.S. to win out in the end with colonies on the moon or Mars by now, it’s a real slap in the face.
All of the pride we felt when we did finally beat the Soviets to the moon through remarkable feats of engineering and all the dreams we had as kids of exploring the universe have, like so many things these days, have been outsourced.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.