Atheist holidays, pt 1

12 April 2011

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most important milestones of human ingenuity. Half a century ago, science had advanced to such a high degree, one courageous Russian decided it was safe to climb in a tiny tin can, and be literally shot all the way around the world. The flight took less than two hours, and the pilot landed safely in the country side. The peasants were understandably a bit surprised to see a bright orange clad man parachute down into their potato field. “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!”.

The milestone was an evolutionary one. We already we could launch things in space, and predict/steer where they should be. We also knew that we could safely expose humans to zero and high gravity environments with the right equipment, partly because of experience with jet plane technology and partly because of an array of mice,dogs and monkeys we send out and survived being in space. The only thing we didn’t know was if we could safely get someone back on the surface of the earth. It’s apparently not a trivial task to teach a monkey to use a parachute. Or to make a call to Moscow. Well, that day we all learned that we could go into space, and safely come back. And that some of us are actually crazy enough to do it.

The hero of this story, is, of course, Yuri Gagarin. A man whose medical evaluations show him to possess an excellent memory, a high degree of knowledge of complicated manners, as well as a perfectionist streak and attention to details. But above all, he was a relatively short man, and this made him the perfect fit for the job. The Vostok I space shuttle was a lot smaller and weighed less than most products of the American automobile craze, and also looks way less reliable.

Today, let’s celebrate Gagarin, for showing us how far we can get by trusting on science and ingenuity, and also for being the most courageous person since Audie Murphrey until Evel Knieval.