Today in Russia

It's Yuri's Night.  From Time.

Yuri Gagarin: Anniversary Honors for First Man in Space
It's not for nothing that Russia, the U.S. space community and most former Soviet republics celebrate every April 12 as Yuri's Night, with speeches, parties and commemorative events. It's not for nothing, too, that this year the list of countries joining the celebration has expanded to 71 — including Belgium, Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Greece, India, the Maldives, Malaysia and even Iran — or that the inevitable website complete with the inevitable online gift shop has been launched. (The Gagarin T-shirts, embroidered patch and temporary tattoos are still in stock, but the "flashy blinky-light LED lapel pin" is sold out.)

Just as inevitably, the 50th anniversary has gotten the revisionists going, questioning not only what the point of human space travel is when unmanned probes can go so much farther so much more cheaply (a fair, if spiritless, question) but also just how big a deal Gagarin's little joyride was in the first place — a wholly unfair one. Stipulate this: Gagarin was indeed mostly along for the ride: his Vostok capsule was controlled entirely by either preprogrammed commands or controllers on the ground. He was not even allowed the dignity of an attitude-control joystick, unlike John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the Earth 10 months later and who could at least change the orientation of his little Mercury spacecraft, practicing a rudimentary form of the complex flying that later space travelers would have to master.


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