April 12 is a very special day, worthy of celebrating every year. But this year is different. In 1961, as a ten-year-old kid reading science fiction, I could easily believe that people were trying to do what others only dreamed and wrote about. But now, looking back fifty years, it is hard to believe that we did it given the state of the art and the challenges involved. It seems like such a very long time ago. No doubt it was an inspiration for me. Something to fuel my dreams. I did not look at it as an accomplishment by a potential adversary but rather as a great achievement by the human race much the way I admired (and still do) the accomplishments of the early explorers from different countries.
Thirty years later I was a test pilot and flight test instructor, taking a class of test pilots under instruction on a field trip that included the Johnson Space Center. We met with John Young and Bob Crippen a few weeks before their historic flight on the very first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1. We talked about it the way any group of test pilots would a "first flight." But we all knew this would be different. That night, a fellow test pilot and instructor and I discussed the day and both agreed that JSC might be a pretty good place to work. Eventually, Mike McCulley and I both went to work there as astronauts and later as business executives -- it was the most exciting part of our careers.
I plan to travel to Moscow to celebrate Gagarin's first flight with my Russian cosmonaut colleagues. But with the upcoming "last flight" of the shuttle, my thoughts today will be mostly on STS-1 and John Young and Bob Crippen. What they did thirty years ago should be remembered as one of the bravest and most selfless acts in modern history for it opened the door to an incredible era of human space exploration that will continue long after the Space Shuttle is retired.