April 12 marks milestones-celebrating two great moments in spaceflight

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — April 12 marks the anniversaries of not one, but two achievements in spaceflight. They happened twenty years apart, but both are major milestones.

On April 12, 1961, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would climb into the Vostok One spacecraft, and become the first person to rocket into space, orbit the earth, and return safely. A great achievement for the Soviet Union–and, as both Professor Ronald C. Jones and Doctor Glenn Mitchell of Harrisburg University recall, a source of consternation to many in the United States.

“The news media and the people that were talking felt that the leadership in the United States at that time had fallen behind the technology curve,” says Jones, “And it was a slap in the American image for the Russians to succeed at that.”

“Most of us at that time,” recalls Mitchell, “were a little bit prepared by the fact that Sputnik had already gone up, a couple of years previously. We had watched Laika the dog and several other animals go up, so we knew they were a little bit ahead of us in the race.”

Determined to regain the lead in the space race, President John F. Kennedy announced an ambitious plan to reach the moon within a decade. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Dr. Glenn Mitchell notes his early interest in space shaped his career.

“I am board certified in aerospace medicine. So I have been taking care of pilots, astronauts, all sorts of people in extreme environments,” he says.

On April 12, 1981, the second milestone — the first space shuttle launch. The orbiter Columbia, crewed by John Young and Robert Crippen, would circle the globe thirty-six times. Mission, STS-1 (Space Transportation System-1) ended with a successful touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base.

(We should note that the launch taking place on the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight was a coincidence; the flight was supposed to happen two days earlier, but a computer glitch forced a delay.)

Both Ronald Jones and Glenn Mitchell have attended shuttle launches, and both say nothing compares with it.

“You get to feel the sound, and the vibration,” says Jones, “and the thundering that’s going on, your whole body just shakes, and the ground shakes as this thing takes off. “

Mitchell adds, “Even though you’re a couple of miles from the actual vehicle, it’s still awfully impressive. You can feel the pressure, of the rocket leaving the ground, it’s a tremendous amount of energy, it’s amazing.”

In 2011 the United Nations declared April 12 the International Day of Human Space Flight, honoring the contributions of space science and technology to humanity. Celebrations take place on that day around the world. In a sense, that’s not surprising since, as Professor Jones notes, the space race today has a lot more contestants.

“The EU, they have their space program, you have the country of India, they have their space program, then there’s the PRC (People’s Republic of China), and there’s the Japanese,” says Jones. “So if you look at it, space programs are quite prolific, across the world, and several of them are ready to take the next step into manned launches.”

Doctor Mitchell is looking at all the activities as something to inspire hope. “People need to be reminded there are goals besides this national, international conflicts we have, and the tensions that we have, there are goals that are loftier than that. And a day that has the ability to focus people on the fact that there are other bodies floating up there besides the moon, that are incredibly interesting places and have the potential for us to understand a whole lot more about the solar system happened, and perhaps how we happened, those are really important things for us to understand philosophically, and scientifically if we are going to be more of a humanity, and less a group of tribes.”

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