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 [...]

1Jorasch.jpgThe Difference Between Exploring and Tourism
James Jorasch, founder, Science House: But what about the third man in space? Have you ever heard of Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Titov? Although certainly a great man, he's unlikely to be popping up as the answer to a quiz show million dollar question [...]

1Carmody.jpgSpace Telemetry: How Extraterrestrials Phone Home
Tim Carmody, freelance writer: In 1945, Arthur C. Clarke believed that communications satellites were "a possibility of the more remote future -- perhaps half a century ahead." The idea that scientific measurements could be taken and computational commands [...]

1Prelinger.jpgYuri's Day From an Anti-Nostalgia Perspective
Megan Prelinger, co-principal, Prelinger Library & Archives: Human spaceflight is a cultural project and must be understood as such. Our desire to explore will ultimately, I believe, assert itself and find another peaceful expression out beyond the limits of orbital space [...]

1Craft.jpgThe Courage to Set a New Strategic Objective for NASA
Steve Craft, deputy director, strategic relationships office at NASA's Langley Research Center: The initiation of human space flight was strategic. It ultimately positioned our nation as dominant both militarily and in advanced technology applications [...]

1Phillips.jpgThe Human Face of Space Exploration: A Message of Hope
Kenneth Phillips, curator for aerospace science, California Science Center: It mattered not (at least to a 12-year-old) that Gagarin was Russian and lived in a foreign land thousands of miles away. What mattered was that he went to space and lived to tell us all about it [...]

1Andersen.jpgAre We Disappointed With Space Exploration?
Ross Andersen, freelancer writer: As a feat of techno-nationalism, Gagarin's flight didn't stick. In just thirty days the trick had been repeated, and before the decade was up, Gagarin was dead of a freak jet crash, and an American flag stood on the moon [...]

1Logsdon.jpgThe Future of 21st Century Spaceflight Remains Uncertain
John Logsdon, professor emeritus, George Washington University: Will humans stay close to planet Earth? Cold War competition sent Americans to the moon. What will be the compelling rationale for this century's human space exploration? The answer is not clear. [...]

1Hodges.jpgBefore NASA's Budget Was Cut, Americans Did Exceptional Things
Jim Hodges, freelance journalist: In the five decades since Yuri Gagarin's flight, American space policy has ranged from the clarity of John Kennedy to the machinations of Richard Nixon to the unfunded mandate of George W. Bush to today's program [...]

1Shaw.jpgA Leap Forward: Reaching Beyond All Reasonable Bounds
Brewster Shaw, former NASA astronaut, Boeing executive: Human beings have always been explorers. Adventuring into the unknown challenges us to learn and grow. Having a vision, and the potential to realize that vision, keeps us alive and confident [...]

1Jacobs.jpgTom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff' and the Idolization of John Glenn
Alan Jacobs, professor of English, Wheaton College: It was only when I read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, that I came to understand the complex national pathologies that had produced the idolization of Glenn and the (comparative) marginalization of Shepard [...]

1Whitesides.jpgA New Holiday to Bring Our Little Planet Closer Together
Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, co-creator, Yuri's Night: Yuri's Night is not just a celebration of the past and all of the brave space explorers who have gone before us. It is also a celebration of the future. It is a call to action to all of those who care about human spaceflight [...]

1Dumbacher.jpgSo, Your Dad's a Rocket Scientist
Erin Dumbacher, assistant director of research, Government Business Council: Most of my childhood friends' families had transferred to Huntsville to engineer the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle or one of NASA's science missions like the Hubble Space Telescope [...]