Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Yuri’s Day

I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention that today is the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight.

Yeah, it’s also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch and the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumter. (Strange, those historical coincidences, huh?)

The idealist in me would like to think of those three big dates, the first human spaceflight would be the one that’s remembered thousands upon thousands of years from now. But we, as a civilization, have turned inward. We don’t put the “big bucks” into dreams anymore.

This part of the future, as I envisioned it when I was a kid, was to be filled with space outposts that became towns and cities and departure points for farther and farther exploration. As much as I’ve been happy to have had all the tools of computers and the Internet and e-mail and blogging and social media and digital photography to play with in my adulthood, I can’t help wondering where we as a society would have gone if we’d put some of that development money into safer, cheaper, more reliable access to space.

Many years ago, I regularly attended meetings of a space-activist group; it held monthly public lectures (and probably still does) on the MIT campus. Of course, one of the enduring debates was whether the U.S. government should continue to monopolize the space program or whether space exploration should be privatized. (Yes, this is still a debate in some circles — one reason why I drifted away from “space activism.”) Personally, I think both funding paradigms have their place. In the history of aviation development, there were instances where the government (Smithsonian, military, etc.) stepped in and made a difference financially; at other times and places, individual benefactors (Guggenheim) helped out, and other people (Howard Hughes) made their fortunes. The growth of privately owned airlines didn’t stop military test pilots from figuring out how to break the sound barrier and vice versa. In other areas of science, some research gets public funding and other research in the same field gets private funding, and the work gets done.

Anyhow … back to the title of this post….

I’m not old enough to remember Yuri Gagarin’s first flight, though I do recall hearing how he died in a plane crash in 1968. It’s too bad that his life was so short — he would be 77 years old if he were still alive. Of course, who knows what might have happened to him in the intervening years, particularly after the political upheavals of 20 years ago.

I know I’m going to spend the rest of the evening browsing through this set of links courtesy of today’s Google doodle.

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