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Yuri Gagarin’s space expedition launched humanity forward by Chris Churchill

(Originally published in the Las Cruces Sun News on April 12, 2020 – link)

The date April 12, 1961 looms huge in the space world. On this date, Yuri Gagarin became the first space traveler from earth. Almost a human lifetime ago, Yuri bravely strapped into his Soviet Vostok 1 spacecraft and was thrust into the great unknown, humanity’s final frontier. His achievement was the brainchild of Sergei Poplovich Korolev, a visionary powerhouse of an engineer turned rocket scientist.  Korolev was so valuable to the Soviets that he was known outside the USSR only as the Chief Designer. Together, these two men spearheaded efforts of thousands of individuals working to realize a single dream for humanity- for humans to become cosmic citizens of the universe.

April 12, 1961 was the start of something very big indeed. Yet, we ask, is it big because it started a competitive space race for supremacy between two socioeconomic and political ideologies that culminated in what is arguably humanity’s greatest-ever achievement- the moon landing?  Is it big because our resulting national space program helped develop spinoff technologies, such as global communications, cell phones, and the internet?  Is it big because the space race evolved into the space shuttle program followed by a global cooperation that culminated in the international space station?  Or, is it big because it set the stage for the coming era of “New Space”, in which billion-dollar industries such as space tourism and asteroid mining will soon revolutionize and dominate global economies.

Each of those are proud achievements for humans, but they are simply historical events that follow a familiar pattern. The great sea race of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was a similar breakthrough period for humanity.  Our planet was fully revealed, new nations and governing ideologies were envisioned and put into practice, and new economies and technologies were created.  By 1650, the Dutch East Indies Company had invented the stock market, merged government with the commercial business of international trade, and, using military domination, forged the modern day ocean trade routes of the planet.  Our future in the next hundred years will likely follow a similar story line, except the stage will be the solar system and the trade routes will be interplanetary.  We can only hope we do not repeat the centuries of inequities that have resulted in “othering” our fellow humans and living creatures and squelching the potential and self realization of all earthlings.

Yuri’s puddle jump into earth orbit was bigger than the space flight itself; it reached beyond improving humanity; it improved our humanity. America’s Apollo moonshot, for example, showed us what humans can achieve when we truly unify to embrace a single common goal.  Even with millions of moving parts in industry, of logistics, and economic machinery, we learned that when individuals embrace being part of something bigger than themselves, a single generation can transform humanity into something greater than it was.  It is unfortunate that fear of Soviet domination was required to teach Americans that lesson.  In addition, with the moon landing, we finally discovered spaceship earth.  We were elevated to raise our collective conscience.  Carl Sagan eloquently expressed this in his book Pale Blue Dot, “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Space imprints this perspective on us.  Carl is saying space changes us for the better.

Perhaps someday, humans will naturally take on scores of “moonshot projects” for the sake of forging humanity into something greater-  stewards of a self-sustaining spaceship earth who embrace all the precious living things on it- a species preparing itself for the next great evolutionary step as the cosmic beings we already are, but have yet to understand.  So, as April 12 annually reoccurs, we are time and again reminded to pause, to consider our potentialities, to plumb the depths of our true nature in the cosmos, to question what we aim to achieve with the gift of life and our beautiful precious cradle, spaceship earth.  This April 12, 2020, we are faced with the challenge of our century, our very own moonshot moment.  In Yuri’s dream, space changes us for the better.  With a true cosmic perspective, we humans would naturally act globally with greater unity to successfully achieve our generation’s moonshot. Yuri started something big and all we must do is dedicate ourselves to realizing his dream.

Chris Churchill is Professor of Astronomy at new Mexico State University. He can be reached at