The Meaning of Human Spaceflight: 20 Essays on Its 50th Anniversary

On the anniversary of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic trip around the Earth, NASA administrators, former astronauts, science museum curators and other thinkers from various fields reflect on 50 years of human spaceflight


Fifty years ago today, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, then just 27 years old, became the first human to journey into outer space. Gagarin, strapped inside of his Vostok spacecraft, completed an orbit of the Earth on April 12, 1961, instantly making himself a subject of international conversation. Before he died seven years later when a training jet crashed outside of Chkalovsky Air Base, Gagarin was awarded numerous medals and honors.

To commemorate 50 years of manned spaceflight, we reached out to NASA administrators, former astronauts, science museum leadership and many others who have written intelligently about space in the past. We've gathered their responses, ranging from the story of the Blue Marble Shot, that photograph seen above, to a moving celebration of colleagues from a former Space Shuttle pilot, on this page.

1Gagarin.jpgYuri Gagarin's First Speech About His Flight Into Space
Yuri Gagarin, Soviet pilot and cosmonaut: Many people are interested in my biography. I have read in the newspapers that some irresponsible persons in the U.S., who are distant relatives of Gagarin nobility, consider I am one of their offsprings. I will have to disillusion them [...]


1Madrigal.jpgThe Limits of the Human Body in Space: An Illustrated Guide
Alexis Madrigal, senior editor, The Atlantic: Perhaps nothing has reminded humans more of our fundamental organismness than traveling to outer space. All of the things our bodies take for granted on Earth -- gravity, oxygen, a relatively narrow range of temperatures [...]


1Reinert.jpgThe Blue Marble Shot: Our First Complete Photograph of Earth
Al Reinert, screenwriter, Apollo 13: It was the first photograph taken of the whole Earth and the only one snapped by a human. You can't see the Earth as a globe unless you get at least twenty thousand miles away, and only 24 humans ever went that far into outer space [...]


1King.jpgSparking the Cosmic Imagination
Rita J. King & Zea Barker: On April 12, 1961, President Kennedy woke up to learn that the Soviet Union had launched the first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. First Sputnik, now this! Immediately, Kennedy met with Lyndon B. Johnson. The speech he gave challenged Congress [...]


1Levine.jpgThe Exploration of Mars by Humans: Why Mars? Why Humans?
Joel S. Levine, senior research scientist, NASA's Langley Research Center: The trip will take about nine months each way with a stay time on the surface of Mars of several hundred days. The length will provide an excellent opportunity to engage the public in the mission [...]


1Reightler.jpgOne of the Bravest and Most Selfless Acts in Modern History
Kenneth Reightler, former NASA astronaut: 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 [...]


1Knappenberger.jpgA Triumph of Math, Science, Technology and Engineering
Paul Knappenberger, president, Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum: The 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth -- the birth of human spaceflight -- was a significant event for all peoples. It was a triumph of math, science, technology and engineering [...]


Thumbnail image for 1Madrigal.jpgThe Explosive (But Now Forgotten) Rumor About Yuri Gagarin
Alexis Madrigal, senior editor, The Atlantic: In the day after Yuri Gagarin's momentous ride into space, a strange story cropped in newspapers across the world. Sergei Bouterline, an MIT instructor, made the explosive claim that Gagarin was actually his nephew [...]

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