WASHINGTON (Sputnik) – Legendary Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight 60 years ago was life-changing for every nation on the planet, and demonstrated Earth’s gravity need not prevent humanity from exploring the entire universe, US-based Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor told Sputnik.
Monday marks the 60th anniversary of Gagarin’s space flight – the first in human history. On April 12, 1961, Gagarin pronounced his famous “Poyekhali!” (Let’s Go!) as the Vostok spacecraft lifted off the ground, taking the first person ever to space. After orbiting the Earth once, the re-entry module landed on the territory of what was then the Soviet Union.
“Gagarin’s flight, like Alan Shepard’s a month later, was life-changing for not just the Soviet Union and the US but for everyone on this planet,” Zelibor said. “It showed us all, we do not need to be bound by Earth’s gravity because we have an entire universe to explore.”
April 12th, he added, “is the day that everything changes for humanity”.
“One of us from the entire human race takes that first journey into space and after that, we all begin to follow. It’s part of the reason we hold so many explorers in such high esteem,” Zelibor said. “They’ve done something that no one had ever done before, and that spark they offer is all it takes to give someone else the initiative and courage to give it a go and take their bold step forward next.”
Zelibor went on to say that Gagarin’s flight is emblematic of the human experience to explore and take risks by going into the unknown.
“What also makes his flight so valuable is the fact we have pictures and footage that captured it as it happened,” he added. “No other explorer before him, ever had their venture chronicled on film but having that visual record means more of us could share in the experience.”
Zelibor added that those images were not just visual proof, but they shared the wonder and imagination of what’s possible for people to achieve.
“Which is why even today, we still crave the pictures, footage and visuals that come with spaceflight,” he noted.
The fact Russia, the US, China and others have spacecraft distributed throughout the system, bearing their respective flags, tells the universe: “We’re here and we’re going to explore wherever it takes us.”
“April 12th, 1961 is the day it all started for the human race and Yuri Gagarin was the person who started that for all of us,” he said.
Zelibor underscored that that represents a powerful testament to how the global space ecosystem can work together to tackle bold missions in space but also address big problems on Earth.
“While Gagarin’s venture into space may be the human start of space exploration, it is also the start of how space changes humanity for the bettering of life here on Earth,” he said. “When that happens, it benefits everyone, and it’s Space Foundation’s mission to share those stories, programmes and rewards.”
“Today Space Foundation works with educators from around the globe. In our Teacher Liaison Programme, we have hundreds of elite educators from 14 different countries participating – all with one goal – making a better future for everyone,” he said. “We don’t have one from Russia yet, but that’s something we want to have happen soon. That’s progress by any measure and it all starts with that first flight.”
Zelibor noted that for the past decade, Space Foundation has hosted an annual “Yuri’s Night,” to celebrate Gagarin’s flight, and it is usually aligned with the annual Space Symposium. Because of the current pandemic, this year on Saturday, April 17th, the Foundation will host a virtual gathering that will allow families to participate in an interactive event dubbed “choose your own adventure”.
“Normally, we would be gathering many of our Symposium attendees among the various exhibits and displays at our Discovery Center for our Yuri’s Night celebration but with the ongoing pandemic, we’ve gone with an online gathering,” he explained. “It’s certainly not what we hoped it would be, but this platform also allows us to reach even more people and doing the interactive adventure with Astrid allows the experience to still deliver a personal feel.”
Zelibor noted that participants will be able to help the pioneering astronaut, Astrid, who was inspired by Yuri Gagarin and every space pioneer that has followed, as Astrid seeks to be the first human on Mars.
“Astrid runs into some trouble along the way and it’s up to participants to help her successfully make it to Mars,” he said. “We saw this year’s gathering as an opportunity to not only educate and inspire children and their families about Gagarin’s flight, but also take part in mission decisions that will help Astrid get to her intended destination.”
Zelibor added that Space Foundation has used Yuri’s Night as a fundraiser for multiple education programmes, teachers, students and families worldwide. This year’s programme, he said, is also about helping young people see their place in the global space ecosystem.
“They all don’t have to be astronauts like our character Astrid, but there are opportunities for them to be flight directors, construction leaders, doctors, climate scientists, geologists, nutritionists and so much more,” he continued. “Today’s generation of children will have more space happenings in their lives than any before it and if Space Foundation and events like Yuri’s Night can help them see that future, we’re going to do it.”
“It is also a moment to give pause and reflect on how that first flight changed the world and every person on it,” Zelibor stressed. “Nothing was ever the same after that flight, and every bold step we take since Gagarin’s flight proves there’s nothing we cannot do without knowhow, dedication and courage. It’s a tremendous legacy.”
The Story of Russian Space Achievements Should Be Told Better in the US
Many people in the United States are unaware, either of the achievements of the Russian space programme, or the risks taken by legendary cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin during his pioneering space flight, and that story should be told better, Zelibor told Sputnik.
“Today unfortunately I don’t think enough people have a full appreciation for the risks of Gagarin’s flight, or those that immediately followed him into space,” Zelibor said. “Movies and TV programs have certainly showed some of the drama of those moments for American audiences around the original Mercury astronauts but there are still a lot of Americans who don’t know or really appreciate the achievements of the Russian space programme. That’s a story that needs to be better told. Especially as we celebrate twenty years of cooperation living and working onboard the International Space Station.”
Zelibor said many Americans today value his achievement despite the competition between the US and Russia, but back then, in the tension of the Cold War, things were different.
“National pride of who would be the first country to go into space certainly was front and centre in everyone’s minds back then,” he explained. “But history has a way of giving us a deeper and broader perspective of moments that we cannot appreciate for their magnitude when they occur.”
“We can certainly celebrate history-making achievements when they occur, but history gives us ripples of understanding and perspective that give moments like Gagarin’s deeper meaning and appreciation,” he added.
ISS Represents Perfect Platform for Russia, US to Boost Relations
The International Space Station (ISS) is an ideal platform for the United States and Russia to develop better relations, Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor told Sputnik.
“That orbiting outpost would not have happened without either the Russian or the American people, and it is the perfect platform for us to develop better relationships with one another,” Zelibor said. “The truth is, the ISS was brought about by more than engineering and joint assembly spacewalks. It’s an example of respect, human ingenuity and capacity-building, and those are the best foundations for any relationship to be built upon.”
Zelibor said that is one of the reasons the Space Foundation selected the five primary partners of the ISS – the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) with its Space Achievement Award this past year.
The Space Agency chief said space remains one the very few areas where the two countries continue to cooperate amid their worsened relations.
“Cost is certainly a driver, as efforts like the ISS, or even trips to the Moon or Mars are not inexpensive ventures,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about our mutual survival. Space is certainly one of the most hostile of environments any human can venture and, as such, our own human instincts to protect ourselves and one another come forward.”
Zelibor pointed out that ever since Russian and US astronauts started to train together onboard the Space Shuttle and the Mir Space Station in the 1990s, political and cultural barriers had broken down, not just between the crew members, but also the support teams around them.
“That’s a relationship that was pioneered in the 1970’s by the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that not only linked our international spacecraft in orbit but joined us in handshakes in space for the first time too,” Zelibor said.
Zelibor said he believes that one of the most impressive relationships and lifelong friendships born of that exchange was between astronauts Tom Stafford and Alexei Leonov – “two of the Space Race’s most notable space pioneers.”
“Their friendship was the first of many mutual bonds of respect and comradery to be formed and many more have followed their examples,” he said. “You hear about that shared mutual bond if you speak with any of the ISS crew members and their support teams, or even those from the Shuttle-Mir era. All of them will tell you how grateful they are for friendships that were forged by working, designing, building and training together.”
On 7 April 2011, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 12 April as the International Day of Human Space Flight on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s first space flight. The resolution was co-authored by more than 60 UN member states.
The Space Foundation, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, is one of the leading organisations in space awareness activities and major industry events.