Fifty-three years ago today, Yuri Gagarin pierced the veil of Earth’s fragile atmosphere in his Vostok 1 space capsule, becoming the first human being to enter “outer space.” His trip was barely even dipping the tip of a toe into the ocean, but what he began should always be remembered in the annals of human history. In 2001 George and Loretta Whitesides (nee Hidalgo) threw a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Yuri’s flight. That party has grown into a yearly event, with over 300 parties around the world being held today and this weekend. Yuri’s Night is a time to celebrate and to look up and think about humanity’s future in the stars.
There are parties at dance clubs, parties at restaurants, parties at telescopes, parties just about anywhere anyone can imagine having a party. Some are private, but hundreds of Yuri’s Night parties are public and you are invited to find one near you.
When Yuri went into space, humanities progress into the stars seem pre-destined. The premise of much popular sci-fi is the inevitability of human’s exploring strange new worlds. But what if we choose not to go, and instead stay in the safety and warmth of Mother Earth? This is an increasing probability.
There is no arguing that just the other side of our thin envelope of atmosphere lies a place that is inconceivably inhospitable. If you consider the traditional four forces of nature needed for life as we know it — Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water — all of these are against us in space. In the open gulf of the cosmos that separates us from anywhere worth going, there is no gravity, atmosphere, heat, or nutrients. There is also no magnetosphere which protects us from ready solar radiation.
So, why go? Why venture into a place for which we are so ill-suited to travel?
In an editorial in GOOD magazine written at the time of the last U.S. Space shuttle mission/, Sr. Editor Cord Jefferson questioned why we spend money keeping a manned space program at all. He, as many have, argued that we have more pressing terrestrial concerns. Our time and treasure is better spent fixing the problems and correcting the injustices here on Earth. So, he asks, why would we continue spending our resources on human space exploration? Why continue to risk life and limb in space when we there is so much to do down on earth?
The concept that we need to “get our own house in order first” is a misleadingly immediate and pragmatic argument. Who could disagree that fixing the problems we have here are a priority before spending money to take those problems somewhere else? Anyone who believes this line of reasoning will be hard to sway. Advocates of manned space exploration will point out the practical benefits the manned space program has had over the years — great things like Tang and Velcro — and yet I find most people who think that manned space exploration is a luxury are unswayed by counter arguments of pragmatism.
So, what argument might sway the nay-sayers? Not to sound like Jor-el arguing with the Kryptonion Science Council, but there is one simple reason we have to travel outwards from this planet: if we don’t leave, humanity is doomed.
The recent meteor exploding over Russia a is a powerful reminder of just how fragile our tiny home is. This relatively small 11 ton chunk of rock injured around 1500 people just from the damage its shockwave caused. The one time asteroid didn’t even land directly in a populated region and is dwarfed by other asteroids hurtling around our solar system.
If there is one thing I have learned as an amateur cosmologist, it is that this island earth will not be forever beneath our feet. I’m not predicting our planet will disappear or become uninhabitable anytime soon. However, one day, it will be no more. This is a fact of nature that we or our descendants will have to deal with. It might happen later this afternoon or an afternoon millions of years in the future, but it will happen, and we really don’t know when it will happen.
A better question than “should we go?”, then, is “what happens if we don’t go?” Exploration has never been simply about a need to see what’s over the horizon. We explore because we need to know whether we can go over there if over here gets bad. Our need to explore is born from the very real need for survival. Humans survive by having someplace else to go when the going gets tough. If you think that sending humans into space is a luxury we can’t afford, you are dead wrong.
If we want to survive and continue to evolve as a species, then we will have to find other places to live, and that process starts right now, because it looks like it’s going to take a long to time to get anywhere.
But enough doom and gloom for now. I am hopeful for humanities future, which is why I support Yuri’s Night. Yuri’s Night is about celebrating human space flight and that shared future among the stars that I read so much about from when I was growing up.
I for one will be partying for space exploration this weekend.
Note: A version of this article appeared on GeekDad on this date last year.