In honor of Yuri’s Night and the 50th anniversary of manned space flight, I thought I would share the story that I think of whenever Yuri Gagarin comes up. Then I thought I should preface that story by explaining how on earth I even have a “favorite Yuri Gagarin story.” And then I started thinking of other strange ways that my early knowledge of the space program shaped my perspective on aeronautic history.
So now let me preface this post with my favorite Yuri Gagarin story:
Back in college, I once went to a party and randomly met a guy named Yuri. I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly (How many people named Yuri have you met in the Midwest?), so I tried to clarify.
“Yuri? As in Yuri Gagarin?” He didn’t reply right away and was giving me a strange look, so I added, “You know? Like the first man in space.”
“Yes, I know who Yuri Gagarin is. It’s just that you’re the first person who’s ever made that connection.”
Yuri and I didn’t really hit it off, so I didn’t see him again for a few months. Eventually I bumped into him again, and it turned out we had a mutual friend. Not knowing that we had met once before, our friend made the effort to introduce us.
“This is my friend Yuri.”
“Right! Like Yuri Gagarin!” I laughed, figuring it was an easy way to point out that we’d met before.
“Wow!” he replied. “You know, you’re only the second person to ever make that connection?!”
Sometimes when I tell this story, I still get a blank look when I mention Yuri Gagarin. I always assumed he was a household name, which I suppose he is, in the right context. Apparently Yuri Gagarin came up a little more often in our household while I was growing up.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen The Right Stuff. I started watching this film when I was so little that I couldn’t sit through the entire movie or completely understand what was going on. For years I think I assumed that the shuttle astronauts still went through that test of blowing bubbles into a tube with floating ping pong balls. Even years later, when Apollo 13 came out and I was much older, I just couldn’t fully get behind Ed Harris’s character. After all, what was John Glenn doing working in mission control?
Strangely, seeing the film’s clips of the failed rocket launches over and over acclimatized me to the image of rocket explosions. I’ve heard from other people my age that seeing the Challenger disaster on television was a poignant childhood memory. While I remember the event, it didn’t phase me as much as it did my classmates. I can only assume that it just didn’t look all that much different from those early failed test launches I’d seen over and over.
A few years later, our elementary school Explorations class (our skip-recess-once-a-week-in-favor-of-more-learning gifted class) focused on a space exploration theme (which may have led in some small part to my best friend‘s lifelong astronaut obsession). We learned about the space program and its history, and we did all kinds of cool things like driving across town in order to create a scale model of the solar system. My end-of-year project was on commercial products developed from NASA spin-offs, and I’ve never been able to look at a handheld vacuum cleaner in quite the same way. (Did you know that Dustbusters were first developed to collect moon rocks? Now you do.)
I’m pretty sure that was the only time I actually studied the space program in school, but somehow it kept creeping into things that I was doing. The last bit of my space exploration history was fleshed out while working on a stamp collecting project for 4-H. (Yes, I collected stamps and researched space exploration for 4-H. It’s not all pig farming like some people think!) I put together a collection of commemorative stamps outlining the history of space flight from the first rocket launches up to the most recent shuttle missions. It even included an actual stamp that had been up in the shuttle — a Christmas gift from my parents. The project involved writing 20 one-page summaries explaining the different phases of space exploration (to accompany the related stamps). This probably wasn’t the way most high school students spent their summer afternoons, but I was willing to go the distance for that frilly purple ribbon and the satisfaction of winning. And all these years later, I guess I have a better-than-average knowledge of early space exploration history to show for it.
Well, that and an amusing anecdote to share on Yuri’s Night.