Yuri Gagarin – Hero of the Soviet Union and First Ambassador to the Cosmos

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most historic moments in human history. It was on this day in 1961, that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take a journey into outer space. Aboard his Vostok spacecraft, not only did Gagarin become the first person in space, he also was the first to orbit the Earth — something NASA didn’t accomplish until its third manned Mercury mission, some nine months later.

Gagarin - 1964

Yuri Gagarin - 1964

While strapped to the top of a Soviet Vostok-K rocket, Gagarin hummed and whistled “Lilies of the Valley”, cracked jokes, and found plenty of time to laugh, all the while waiting for the ignition below to send him where no man had gone before.

“Poyekhali! (Off we go!)”

Gagarin : Thank you. Goodbye. See you soon, dear friends. Goodbye, see you soon.

Gagarin spent 108 minutes from launch to landing, completing a single orbit of the Earth. It took 25 minutes for ground controllers to be sure he had successfully reached orbit. Gagarin remained calm through the whole ordeal 1 and seemed to rather enjoy himself. He described weightlessness as an unusual, yet enjoyable, experience and radioed back the things he could see out of the windows in his capsule.

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

A 42-second retrofire burn took place over Angola, approximately 5,000 miles from his landing site. When the commands were initiated to separate the service module from the reentry module, a bundle of wires unexpectedly kept them attached. The two components began reentry together, but finally separated following some extreme gyrations. The gyrations continued after separation, but Gagarin radioed that “Everything is OK”, reasoning that the gyrations could be expected from the spherical shape of the craft and didn’t want to “make noise” about it. At 7km above the ground, Gagarin was ejected — as planned 2 — from the Vostok and his parachute immediately deployed. Vostok fell until about 2.5km (8,200 feet) before its main parachute deployed. A couple of schoolgirls witnessed Vostok’s landing and described the situation: “It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.”

Gagarin landed on the ground as a world hero. The Soviets were emboldened by their great accomplishment, and you could be certain that the early American space program had to pick their collective jaws off the floor and wonder how they would catch up.

So today, we tip our hats to Yuri Gagarin and the bold first step he took to get us to where we are now — 51 years later.

Yuri Gagarin's Signature

Gagarin's signature

To learn more about Yuri Gagarin and his historic flight, check out: YuriGagarin50.org

*This post originally published April 12, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.


  1. Just prior to launch, Gagarin’s pulse was at a mere 64 beats per minute.
  2. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Soviets acknowledged that he didn’t land with his craft. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale regulations required that a person land with their craft for it to count as a successful spaceflight. The Soviet government forced Gagarin to lie in press conferences to get the FAI to certify his flight, which they did.

Yesterday Was A Big Day For SpaceX

Yesterday was a big day for Elon Musk and his space launch services company SpaceX. On April 9, 2016, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The rocket was topped with the company’s Dragon capsule, filled with 7,000 pounds of supplies destined for the International Space Station. Included in the payload was the 3,100 pound Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), Bigelow Aerospace’s attempt to demonstrate its expandable space habitats.

SpaceX CRS-8 Mission Patch

SpaceX CRS-8 Mission Patch – Source: SpaceX

The highlight of the mission, designated CRS-8, was SpaceX’s first successful landing of its Falcon 9 rocket on a droneship (christened “Of Course I Still Love You”) in the Atlantic Ocean. This feat is something SpaceX had tried and failed four times previously. SpaceX has successfully landed its Falcon 9 on land, but that challenge paled in comparison to a landing on a barge being tossed around by Atlantic currents.

SpaceX has put a huge emphasis on making its programs efficient and reusable. Their hope is that their methods will drive down the costs of putting people and equipment into orbit and beyond, and make launches much more common. Friday’s successful landing of the Falcon 9 was a huge step in that direction.

All in all, Friday’s success should serve as an important milestone in space exploration. It also highlights the ever increasing transfer of space access from governments to commercial industries.

Check out the amazing video below, of the Falcon 9 landing on ‘Of Course I Still Love You’.

Unreal.

Dragon will arrive at the ISS tomorrow, April 10.

Tour the International Space Station

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. – Source: NASA

Have you ever wanted to visit the International Space Station? Without a whole lot of education, extreme determination, and a fair helping of luck, chances are you won’t be visiting it in-person anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a virtual tour of humanity’s only off-planet home. With the multimedia below, get a feel for what life aboard the International Space Station is like. No spacesuit required.

ESA Panoramas

The European Space Agency (ESA) put together the following 360° panorama of the ISS’s Russian Zvezda module. Notice how there are work surfaces that could only function in a weightless environment. For example, pan straight up towards the ‘ceiling’. (Note: After you hit play, you’ll want to click the full-screen button in the bottom right corner of the video.)

This 360° panorama allows you to explore the International Space Station’s third module, Zvezda. Launched on 12 July 2000, the Russian module supplies life support for the Station and crewquarters. All five of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles docked with the module.

The images to create this view were taken by ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti during her Futura mission in 2015; the cosmonaut in the picture is Gennady Padalka.

Two other views like this are also available on YouTube thanks to the ESA. Check out the Zarya and Unity modules as well.

ESA Interactive Tour

Next up, we have an interactive presentation that you’re going to have to go see for yourself. Check out this interactive tour of nearly the entire ISS. Turn on the map overlay and you can jump to individual sections of the station, or just tour it manually by clicking on the blue arrows. (I managed to get myself lost!) Video clips are interspersed throughout the tour for a more-detailed look.

Just before ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti left the International Space Station after 199 days, she took up to 15 pictures inside each module. Now, the images have been stitched together to create this interactive panorama.

These panoramas offer a snapshot of the International Space Station as it was in June 2015, after moving the Leonardo storage module to a new location.

Wasn’t that cool?

Commander Sunita Williams Tour

One more for today. While not interactive like the other two, this video is one of my favorite tours of the ISS.

In her final days as Commander of the International Space Station, Sunita Williams of NASA recorded an extensive tour of the orbital laboratory and downlinked the video on Nov. 18, just hours before she, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency departed in their Soyuz TMA-25A spacecraft for a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan. The tour includes scenes of each of the station’s modules and research facilities with a running narrative by Williams of the work that has taken place and which is ongoing aboard the orbital outpost.

 

The 2012 video is somewhat long, 25 minutes, but by the end of it you find yourself wishing it would go on longer. Commander Sunita Williams takes us all throughout the space station while demonstrating various features and functions. I especially enjoyed her taking us inside the docked Soyuz capsule that she would be dropping back to Earth in, mere hours after creating this video.

Book Review: Packing For Mars by Mary Roach

Packing For Mars cover

  • Title: Packing For Mars
  • Author: Mary Roach
  • Printed Pages: 334
  • Publish Year: August 2nd 2010 (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Recommended For: People that want all of the dirty details about spaceflight that NASA tends not to advertise, those that enjoy Mary Roach’s humor and wit, and anyone who wants to find out just how ‘wrong’ some of that ‘Right Stuff’ was.

First Lines: “To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuation metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations.”

Review:

I’ve read this book twice now. I read it when it was released in 2010.  I wasn’t familiar with Mary Roach at the time, but I was particularly interested in the history of spaceflight at the time. While waiting to board a few-hour flight, I saw this book in one of the airport book shops. I read the cover and knew I had to read it on the flight. My new Kindle was a novelty to me at the time, so I decided I would purchase the electronic version to read on the plane. I ran into snags trying to get my Kindle to connect to the airport’s WiFi. While in line to board, I figured out a way to turn my smartphone into a hotspot, connect the Kindle to that connection, and then download the book. It was a close call, but ultimately I had my book.

Packing For Mars kept me entertained for the entire 3-hour flight. My fellow aisle mates had to have been curious about what I thought was so funny because I couldn’t help cracking up at Roach’s witty humor. Before I knew it, the captain was already announcing that we’d be landing soon.

Then, I read it again in 2016 in a cabin in the woods, in Alaska, in the winter. I enjoyed the book even more the second time and picked up on things that I didn’t catch the first time. My knowledge of the US space program is much greater than it was the first time I read this book, and this helped me make mental connections that weren’t apparent the first time. In a sense, I’m saying that this is a book that grows with you.

Mary Roach covers nearly everything in her book. She highlights just how unusual an environment outer space is to the human body. This book reveals nearly everything you could imagine. Serious critical attention is spent on how one goes to the bathroom in space, how sex would work (speculating on whether some might already know the answer to this), how you eat, how you sleep, the risks, the rewards, and the awkwardness.

Roach takes our hero astronauts and cosmonauts and reveals a side of them that’s often overlooked: the fact that they don’t have superpowers, they’re people just like you and me.

One thing I couldn’t help but laughing at after reading this book is that one of the differences between me and an astronaut is that I wear diapers way less than they do!

I’m going to avoid trying to list everything the book covers, and instead I just want to encourage you to check it out for yourself. You don’t even have to be a space-nerd like myself to appreciate this book; it will entertain virtually anyone.

Selected Lines:

As when astronaut Mike Mullane was asked by a NASA psychiatrist what epitaph he’d like to have on his gravestone. Mullane answered, “A loving husband and devoted father,” though in reality, he jokes in Riding Rockets, “I would have sold my wife and children into slavery for a ride into space.”


Among the 106 items left on the moon’s surface by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are four urine collection assemblies—two large and two small. Who wore which remains a matter of conjecture.


If it’s cordless, fireproof, lightweight and strong, miniaturized, or automated, chances are good NASA has had a hand in the technology. We are talking trash compactors, bulletproof vests, high-speed wireless data transfer, implantable heart monitors, cordless power tools, artificial limbs, dustbusters, sports bras, solar panels, invisible braces, computerized insulin pumps, fire-fighters’ masks.


 

 

My Rating: I have no problem giving this book a 5/5, for making me laugh through turbulence on an airplane, for satisfying some of my greatest curiosities about space, and for making me see my space heroes in a new light: still as amazing as they were when I was a kid, but now with a greater sense of kinship.

You can snag a copy of the book via the link below, and I really hope you will.

Happy March Equinox: An Explanation

March Equinox graphic

Solstice and equinox diagram, showing the March equinox

Image Credit: NASA

Today is the March Equinox. You’ve probably already heard it a few times today; people running around proclaiming with utmost exuberance how today is the first day of Spring. After the long winters that some of us endure, the arrival of Spring is welcome news. But what is really going on today? After all, where I live it still feels like the middle of Winter, but flowers were already blooming on a trip I took to California a couple of weeks ago1. If we based “The First Day of Spring” on climate patterns, regions across the globe would be recognizing a wide variety of days throughout the year.

When someone says today is the first day of Spring, what they really mean (whether they know it or not) is that today represents an equinox; specifically, the March Equinox.2 On Earth, an equinox is the point in its orbit around the Sun when both hemispheres are equally illuminated; our tilted Earth lines up to a point in which the Sun passes directly over the equator. This happens twice a year, on the March and September equinoctes (which I learned today is the proper plural form of the word equinox).

Contrary to popular belief, the day of the equinox does not represent the day where daylight and darkness are equal. You can thank geometry, the atmosphere, and the Sun’s angular diameter to cause that equality to happen at different times geographically. What today does mean though, is that the equinoctes are the only two days in which the Sun rises due-East and sets due-West, and which the Sun would pass directly overhead from an observer on the equator.

One other very important thing that you must know if you don’t learn anything else today. Way too many people believe that the equinoctes are the only day of the year that an egg can be balanced on its end. While its true that on the equinox an egg can be balanced, it’s also true of every other day of the year; it makes no difference!

There are other times during the year (read: our orbit around the Sun) that we recognize Earth residing at a special place.  There’s Perihelion (which we went over in January) and Aphelion, and then the widely-celebrated solstices; but I’ll save that for another time.

Happy March Equinox!


This article originally posted on March 20, 2012.

  1. In fact, while it may have still been Winter to the San Diegans giving me quizzical looks for swimming in the ocean without a wet suit, to an Alaskan like myself it felt like an unusually warm Summer’s day!
  2. What about them being called the Spring  and Fall (or their Latin names, Vernal and Autumnal) equinoctes? Well, that wasn’t exactly fair to those in the Southern Hemisphere, whose seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere.