When the old Soviet Union announced to the world that it had successfully launched a man into space and that he was orbiting the Earth, the technological accomplishment hit the United States right in its political and scientific stomach. The Soviets had done it again just as they had a couple of years before with the first unmanned satellite in orbit.
Fifty-six years later, the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland is throwing a party to honor the man who was first to be launched into space. Saturday, "Yuri's Night" will be part of a global celebration of the flight of Yuri Gagarin, who made a single orbit of the earth April 12, 1961. Throughout the world, there will be events marking the space accomplishment. At least 44 events are scheduled for the U.S.
At the time, the successful launch of a Soviet cosmonaut into space and his safe return sent a shockwave throughout the U.S. The two countries were in a battle to be first with the feat. The U.S. was still reeling from 1957 when the Soviets were first to put a satellite they called Sputnik into earth orbit. The U.S. followed with unmanned satellites of its own.
But so significant was the launch of a Soviet cosmonaut, both the U.S. government and educators throughout the country began a hard push for strong curriculums in schools so American students could receive more education in the sciences.
The U.S. followed suit a month later with the sub-orbital flight of astronaut Alan Shephard. It was not a full orbit, but one of just a few minutes partially around the globe, but America was climbing back into the space race. A year later in 1962, astronaut John Glenn was rocketed into space for several orbits.
Still, the accomplishment with Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union was significant. It marked a huge stepping stone of scientific and technological achievement for humans venturing into space. That milestone is at the center of "Yuri's Night."
"Putting a human in space is no small matter," said Kirsten Ellenbogen, president and chief executive officer of the Great Lakes Science Center. "So it's appropriate that we celebrate the very first time that humankind was able to do that," she added. "It's a way to celebrate science."
The celebration party at the science center in Cleveland will be attended by many, including NASA astronaut Greg Johnson.