Celebrating A Space Pioneer

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Celebrating A Space Pioneer — On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space. Ryan Kobrick, director of the worldwide "Yuri's Night" celebration, talks about Gagarin and plans to observe the 50th anniversary of his historic 108-minute orbital flight aboard Vostok 1.


You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

It's probably not at the top of your calendar, but next week is a big space anniversary. April 12th marks the 50th anniversary of the flight of - who was the first man in space? Yuri Gagarin. That's right. The first human in space. And it's also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight. Yeah.

Joining me now to talk about human space flight and how to celebrate it is Ryan Kobrick. He's director of a group called Yuri's Night, which is trying to organize parties around the world for the 12th.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. RYAN KOBRICK (Executive Director, Yuri's Night Celebration): Hi, Ira. I'm excited to be on the show today.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. I'm excited to have you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, tell us about Yuri's Night. How did that get started?

Dr. KOBRICK: Sure. Well, Yuri's Night came together as a group of young professionals that really wanted to celebrate the human element of space flight. And they worked with the United Nations and with a group called the Space Generation Advisory Council to try to figure out what would be the best way to engage the public and to sort of educate everyone and also to celebrate.

So it started in 2001, spearheaded by Loretta and George Whitesides, and that year, they had 67 events around the world, and that was sort of how things got started for Yuri's Night.

FLATOW: So how do you go about - what's - we know about New Year's Eve, how to celebrate that. What's the correct method of celebrating Yuri's Night?

Dr. KOBRICK: The correct method is basically to do whatever you want.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KOBRICK: That's the great thing about Yuri's Night is that we're not restrictive of how events conduct themselves in terms of their celebrations. We have had things - everything from backyard barbecues to large concerts with up to 10,000 people.

So there's been the complete range. There's been everything in terms of age group from K through 12, outreach events at museums to parties and bands at bars. And so it's very inclusive, and it's very easy to just start your own event anywhere in the world.

FLATOW: And remind us for those of us under 50 who Yuri Gagarin was?

Dr. KOBRICK: Sure. Well, Yuri Gagarin was the first human to fly into space, and it was on April 12th, '61, as you've already mentioned. And the first shuttle flight also was - just happened to be April 12th in 1981. And so the founders of Yuri's Night, or creators, decided, hey, this is a great anniversary to celebrate human space flight.

So Yuri was sort of the ambassador for the world, and as the first person in space, he's sort of led the charge, and he was very easy kind of figurehead to kind of use for Yuri's Night.

FLATOW: Is there a central party location for Yuri's Night?

Dr. KOBRICK: There's never really a central location. There's usually one or two that really kind of make it a big splash in the news or really get a large amount of attendees.

Last year, NASA Eames was really the large event for 2010. They had 6,000 students and educators come to the facilities for demonstrations and a full day of festivities. And from that, they had the second day where they had about 6,000 people as well come to a concert. So they really engaged the public in different ways in terms of, of course, space education but also in terms of music and just sort of providing a fun atmosphere for people to learn about space.

FLATOW: I think it's interesting that NASA would be celebrating a Soviet anniversary.

Dr. KOBRICK: Well, that's I think what's great about Yuri's Night is that we sort of found a way to bring everyone together around the world. And Yuri himself from what I can tell - I mean, obviously, I wasn't around back then. But from what I can tell, he was a very global thinker.

One of the quotes that we put on our website is kind of telling of how he saw the world after a space flight. He said circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance beauty, not destroy it. So you can really get a feeling for that. He really wanted people to come together.

And as a Soviet pilot, that was very open for him to say that. That was not an easy thing for him to just kind of put out there, but he really became ambassador - sort of the first ambassador to Earth to go into space. And that legacy is, obviously, been thrown out, you know, passed from generation to generation because today people are still talking about him.

There's a great piece actually in the Air & Space magazine that came out from interviews with his family members. It's an excellent piece that talks about Yuri Gagarin the person and so it's right along those lines.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. David Jordan(ph) in Orlando.

Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

DAVID: I'm a ham radio operator. My call is AA4KN, and I'm a member of AMSAT, which stands for the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation. And we built an education-based satellite that is right now being carried on the ISS. The satellite's name is AeroSat1 and is soon to be deployed -excuse me - on an EVA from the International Space Station in late July.

So part of this deployment, starting April 11th through April 13th next week, the satellite is scheduled to be switched on from the inside the ISS and hooked up to an external antenna there. And we'll transmit greeting messages that students have sent in to us from all over the world that are recorded on the satellite, along with other information. And this pre-deployment event is being done in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Yuri Gagarin's famous flight.

FLATOW: Ryan, are you familiar with it?

Dr. KOBRICK: Yeah, absolutely. We've had people call in from our Yuri's Night events - especially in the U.S. - that have been involved with this. And they're going to try and record the message that's coming down from the space station. And they're also going to try and make that available for other events to sort of see what their experience was like for hear - listening in on that, which is fantastic.

And I guess I should mention that we have a record-breaking year for Yuri's Night. Right now - and it's still growing, because we're getting 10 to 15, to 20 events every day. So we've got 394 events around the world in 69 countries, so that those numbers are going continue to go up. And we always get some late registrations, of course, as well. So we're definitely going to break 400 this year, which is a big jump for us going from 222 last year.

FLATOW: If we don't have a ham radio, David, is there a way to hear it on the Internet?

DAVID: Well, not to my knowledge right now. But the radio you would need would just be a simple scanner to hear it, actually, that can get 145.950 megahertz. And a lot of your police scanners can do this, and it doesn't take much more than an antenna, maybe two to three-foot whip antenna that comes on those, to hear it. But you would need to track it. And there are certain free software on the Internet where you can get -track the ISS. And, of course, that's what you would need to do. I think Jtrack has one that, I recall, that should be easily accessible.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for the heads up on that, David.

DAVID: Well, thanks for letting me talk. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: You're welcome. And good luck on Yuri's Night.

DAVID: Thanks very much.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KOBRICK: You know, I'm going to try and get that available on our Web page, as well. We're trying to get the - get people linked into where they can look up that information and what frequency, as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yuri was around for quite a while after his launch, after his successful mission.

Dr. KOBRICK: Well, unfortunately, seven years after his flight, he died in a plane crash.


Dr. KOBRICK: And I believe it was MiG-15. I don't know the model number of the MiG. But it was really tragic, because he was becoming that sort of figurehead and hero for everyone. And unfortunately, he passed away too early.

FLATOW: Does - did he ever speculate on - or did the Soviet Union speculate on what might have happened if they had continued their race to go to the moon?

Dr. KOBRICK: It's difficult to say. I mean, as, you know, an engineer, it's - I've got my opinions, but I don't want to speak on behalf of a nation. So I would guess that they definitely had their plans and - I mean, in terms of the lunar race, there were issues that were happening internally, restricting them from getting to those goals. And that might have to be a whole other talk, I think.

FLATOW: Right. You know, we give a lot of attention to Apollo anniversary missions. Is this anniversary bigger outside of the United States?

Dr. KOBRICK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, like I said, this is a global celebration. And the first year after Yuri's flight in '62, they announced that as Cosmonautics Day. So they've been celebrating Yuri's flight since the beginning. And that's usually been more internal and more of a national celebration. But Yuri's Night, this is the 11th year of celebration, and we're really trying to embrace that and really connect people. But we're going to connect people, obviously, through our website by posting where the events are located and trying to help get people to these events. We're connecting them with our global webcast on, where they're going to hopefully have six hours or so of broadcast time. Last year, we did a 12-hour broadcast and had something like 122,000 unique viewers tune in.

And one of the biggest things we're running this year is something called "Call to Humanity" space ad contest, where we're asking people to sort of design an ad campaign or like a poster that could be used to help engage people with space flight. And we're offering - it's not free, but obviously - to enter a Zero-G flight out of Russia for the winner. So we've got other prices, as well, and those are coming from Space Travelers, one of partners.

And we have a sweepstakes we're running with a VIP lift-off in Baikonur...


Dr. KOBRICK: ...which is just, you know, unbelievable. I wish I could enter, but obviously, as executive director, I don't have that ability. And we also have our video contest, too, that we're running with OpenLuna. We've got a lot of engaging activities to - for people to participate in.

FLATOW: Is there - you know, with celebrations like New Year's Eve, there's an exact moment and second of when, you know, the New Year happens. Is there an exact moment and second next week that we can say, hello, you know, blow the - you know, blow those noisemakers or things like this. This is the exact time it happened.

Dr. KOBRICK: Well, I'm going to have say no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KOBRICK: But that doesn't mean that we can't look towards that in the future. I mean, we've talked about that. We're like: What is the appropriate kind of moment to have a toast?


Dr. KOBRICK: And is it at lift-off? Is it when he touched down on Earth? It's kind of hard to say. The orbit took 108 minutes. So there's some variety on timing of celebration. Obviously, some people are sleeping during that moment, so it's kind of hard to have a countdown. And it's not really a time zone-specific thing, so - but it's definitely something to consider for the future.

FLATOW: And Yuri didn't - unlike the American space program, where people splash down in the water, Yuri's capsule did not.

Dr. KOBRICK: That's correct.

FLATOW: (unintelligible), right?

Dr. KOBRICK: Almost all of the Soyuz landings are hard landings in Kazakhstan. So Yuri actually parachuted out. But he still went to space and still orbited, so it's kind of hard for people to argue that it wasn't a space flight. I mean, if anyone on Earth got to do that experience, I'm sure they would tell you that is definitely a space flight.

FLATOW: But there was some - as you say, there was some controversy, because he parachuted out.

Dr. KOBRICK: Right. There's a group that believe that you have to land with your craft in order for it to be a successful flight, but they can continue to argue over it. It still happened. He's still the first. So that can't be taken away.

FLATOW: You can break the sound barrier and pull the rip cord, also, and still get credit for doing that. So...

Dr. KOBRICK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's...

Dr. KOBRICK: And so it just depends on who wants the award - who -different pins to put on their jackets. But what it comes down to it is that April 12th, '61 was the day that humanity left the surface of the Earth, and Yuri Gagarin was that guy. And he was that guy for all of humanity, and not just for one nation.

FLATOW: All right, you summed it up very well, for all of us. And congratulations and happy Yuri's Night.

Dr. KOBRICK: Thanks. Thank you very much for having me on.

FLATOW: Your welcome. Ryan Kobrick is director of a group called Yuri's Night and a post-doc at MIT.


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