Yuri Gagarin – Hero of the Soviet Union and First Ambassador to the Cosmos

Today marks the anniversary of one of the most historic moments in human history. It was on this day in 1961, that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to take a journey into outer space. Aboard his Vostok spacecraft, not only did Gagarin become the first person in space, he also was the first to orbit the Earth — something NASA didn’t accomplish until its third manned Mercury mission, some nine months later.

Gagarin - 1964

Yuri Gagarin - 1964

While strapped to the top of a Soviet Vostok-K rocket, Gagarin hummed and whistled “Lilies of the Valley”, cracked jokes, and found plenty of time to laugh, all the while waiting for the ignition below to send him where no man had gone before.

“Poyekhali! (Off we go!)”

Gagarin : Thank you. Goodbye. See you soon, dear friends. Goodbye, see you soon.

Gagarin spent 108 minutes from launch to landing, completing a single orbit of the Earth. It took 25 minutes for ground controllers to be sure he had successfully reached orbit. Gagarin remained calm through the whole ordeal 1 and seemed to rather enjoy himself. He described weightlessness as an unusual, yet enjoyable, experience and radioed back the things he could see out of the windows in his capsule.

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

Gagarin's Vostok 3KA Capsule

A 42-second retrofire burn took place over Angola, approximately 5,000 miles from his landing site. When the commands were initiated to separate the service module from the reentry module, a bundle of wires unexpectedly kept them attached. The two components began reentry together, but finally separated following some extreme gyrations. The gyrations continued after separation, but Gagarin radioed that “Everything is OK”, reasoning that the gyrations could be expected from the spherical shape of the craft and didn’t want to “make noise” about it. At 7km above the ground, Gagarin was ejected — as planned 2 — from the Vostok and his parachute immediately deployed. Vostok fell until about 2.5km (8,200 feet) before its main parachute deployed. A couple of schoolgirls witnessed Vostok’s landing and described the situation: “It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.”

Gagarin landed on the ground as a world hero. The Soviets were emboldened by their great accomplishment, and you could be certain that the early American space program had to pick their collective jaws off the floor and wonder how they would catch up.

So today, we tip our hats to Yuri Gagarin and the bold first step he took to get us to where we are now — 51 years later.

Yuri Gagarin's Signature

Gagarin's signature

To learn more about Yuri Gagarin and his historic flight, check out: YuriGagarin50.org

*This post originally published April 12, 2011. It has been slightly modified from its original version.


  1. Just prior to launch, Gagarin’s pulse was at a mere 64 beats per minute.
  2. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Soviets acknowledged that he didn’t land with his craft. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale regulations required that a person land with their craft for it to count as a successful spaceflight. The Soviet government forced Gagarin to lie in press conferences to get the FAI to certify his flight, which they did.

SpaceX Launches Itself Towards History

SpaceX COTS 2 Mission Patch

SpaceX COTS 2 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Early Tuesday (5/22) morning, commercial spaceflight took an important step forward which, if everything goes as planned, will result in a historic bookmark in world history tomorrow morning. On May 22nd, 2012, at 3:44am (EST), the private aerospace company, SpaceX, became the first private organization to launch a space capsule filled with supplies on an intercept-course with the International Space Station. If everything checks out, NASA will give SpaceX the go-ahead to dock with the ISS. This first docking maneuver will be accomplished with the aid of the ISS’s robotic arm, which will grab a hold of the Dragon capsule and precisely mate it with the ISS. Subsequent missions will dock solely under Dragon’s power.

Based on my timezone and preferences, the launch was too early to wake up for, yet too late to stay up for. I set an alarm and woke up to watch the show. I watched the final couple of minutes of countdown before seeing that Falcon rocket gracefully take flight towards the stars. The launch feed was quite unlike the typical ones you’ll see coming out of NASA’s mission control. Where NASA’s controllers and announcers stoically announce data and rarely deviate from “strictly-business”, joy was ubiquitous following the Falcon launch and that emotion turned into sheer jubilation when the Dragon capsule separated from the Falcon and deployed its solar arrays.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, described the scene inside SpaceX headquarters:

 “People have really given it their all. We had most of the company gathered around SpaceX Mission Control. They are seeing the fruits of their labor and wondering if it is going to work. There is so much hope riding on that rocket. When it worked, and Dragon worked, and the solar arrays deployed, people saw their handiwork in space operating as it should. There was tremendous elation. For us it is like winning the Super Bowl.”

Regardless of the fact that I was too excited to fall asleep right away after turning off the NASA feed, I’m very glad I sacrificed some of my sleep to watch that historic scene unfold.

Early this morning, the Dragon capsule conducted a “fly-under” of the ISS, bringing it within 2.4 km of the station. A number of maneuvers and tests were conducted to ensure that the Dragon capsule was operating properly and could be completely controlled, in anticipation of tomorrow’s docking. Everything went flawlessly.

I’ll likely be sacrificing some more sleep to catch all the action.  You can too: Live coverage begins at 7:30am ET (3:30am Pacific), and the feed can be found at SpaceX’s website.


Planetary Resources: From Sci-Fi to Reality

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar. Part of my kids' collection.

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the children's educational book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar

Exciting (and historic!) news came to the world via the space-front yesterday. A major announcement was made by Bellevue, Washington-based, entrepreneurial start-up, Planetary Resources. Yesterday morning, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, they unveiled their plans — plans which up until now had existed primarily in the realm of science fiction: they intend to commercially explore and mine asteroids robotically.

So who are Planetary Resources, and do they have the… well, planetary resources to pull off such a feat?

Planetary Resources emerged from the cocoon of an organization, Arkyd Astronautics, which was founded in late-2010 by Dr. Peter Diamandis (spaceflight entrepreneur, founder of the X Prize Foundation) and Eric Anderson (founder of the commercial spaceflight/space tourism corporation, Space Adventures). If not there at the start-up, Chris Lewicki (a former NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission manager) quickly came on board as president and chief engineer. They began very quietly, offering employment for engineers and other professionals and presenting themselves as devoted to  developing “disruptive technologies for the commercial robotic exploration of space”.

Then there are the prominent billionaire investors and advisors, including according to their April 18 teaser press release:

Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr.

If there is a group of people with the potential, background, and resources to make this venture a reality, I think we’re looking at it.

So what’s the plan here; plop some robotic miners on an asteroid, bring home a lode of precious metals, and sell it for profit? Yes and no. They claim their primary purpose is based on their vision, not a return on investment. That said, the potential return on investment is huge, even if it takes one heck of an initial investment to get to that point. If that claimed motivation is truly the case, I have extremely high hopes for Planetary Resources. The greatest breakthroughs and advancements, those technological leaps that change our world, generally don’t emerge out of a profit-plan. They bloom from inspiration and a yearning to do big things, to follow one’s passions wherever they might take them, no matter the cost. This venture can afford to follow those dreams. And while they will face many challenges along the way, as long as they stay motivated by their vision I don’t foresee them limited into accomplishing it.

Here’s a quick run-down of their initial plan:

They will begin by launching and deploying a number of small space telescopes — already developed under the Arkyd name — that will find, observe, and characterize near-Earth asteroids (NEOs, Near Earth Objects). The first of these is slated to go up within the next 24 months. Once asteroid targets have been selected, probes will be sent to them to begin mining operations.

Interestingly, their first mining goal won’t be to see what precious metals they can extract; their first targeted material will be water and other materials that can be used as supplies in space operations (oxygen, nitrogen, etc.). When you consider the costs of launching supplies from Earth into space, it’s overwhelming. During the historic press conference, former NASA astronaut and Planetary Resources adviser, Tom Jones, pointed out that carrying a single liter of water to the International Space Station costs approximately $20,000 USD! With such tremendous shipping costs, there’s little difference in the cost of putting a kilogram of gold or a liter of water into space — virtually all of the cost is fuel to get into orbit. So with that idea, turning asteroids into supply depots would be extremely valuable, and drastically reduce the cost of space programs.

Planetary Resources logo.

This will also allow Planetary Resources, and other companies that might emerge between now and then, the opportunity to extract other natural resources to return to Earth. Asteroids hold the potential to make some of Earth’s rarest materials abundant, and acquiring them for use on Earth could rapidly transform our technology and infrastructure.

If you want to delve deeper into the hows and technical details of the project, you can check out the FAQ on Planetary Resources’s website and watch the archived webcast of their groundbreaking press conference.

Again, I feel highly inspired by all of this. I feel extremely lucky to live in a time when exciting things like this begin to grow legs (I hope things move quickly enough that I will live to see humans exist as a true space-faring species).  The challenges will be immense, and I don’t even want to consider the up-front economics involved, but I believe now is the time to take this step forward — and whatever Planetary Resources undertakes and no matter how far they go, we’re headed in the right direction.


An Apollo 9 Anniversary

On this day in 1969, Commander Jim McDivitt, Command Module Pilot David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart blasted off from Kennedy Space Center for the 10-day Apollo 9 mission. Apollo 9 was the third manned-mission of the Apollo Program and tested many components critical for lunar landing that would occur two missions later with Apollo 11.

Just over four decades later and on the anniversary of its lift-off from Earth, I happen to find myself in San Diego, California where the Apollo 9 Command Module (nicknamed “Gumdrop” by its crew) is displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. I was thrilled to take my family to pay tribute to such an important part of the world’s space program.

The first thing that jumps out at you when seeing an Apollo Command Module for the first time is its size; specifically, how small it is, considering three grown men spent most of their mission living in it.

Apollo 9 Command Module "Gumdrop" and Me

"Gumdrop" and yours truly.

But things really seem small when you take a look inside:

Interior of Apollo 9 Command Module "Gumdrop"

Interior view of "Gumdrop"

The interior offers what appears to be even less room than you have flying coach on a commercial airliner. My legs start to feel cramped after just looking at this picture, so I can only imagine what it must have felt like to spend days in there. I’m guessing that when NASA was recruiting its astronauts, claustrophobia was a disqualifier.

View of some of Gumdrop's controls

Detail of just a few of the seemingly-infinite number of switches and controls.

I spent a lot of time observing the intricate details on the exterior of the capsule as well. The capsule looks exactly how you’d expect, for something that had to withstand temperatures of a couple of hundred degrees below zero (F) on the low end, all the way up to 5,000-degrees (F) on the high end. And that’s to say nothing about the other forces involved in launch, orbit, and reentry.

Detail of "Gumdrop's" Roll Engines

Detail of "Gumdrop's" Roll Engines

The capsule’s heat shield was made of an ablative material — meaning it “turns white hot, chars, and then melts away” during reentry. Amazingly, this heat shield was only two inches at its thickest point, and a mere half inch in some spots! It must have provided quite a light-show for anyone watching the intimidating, yet intended, fiery break-away of the heat shield.

Exterior detail of "Gumdrop"

Exterior detail of "Gumdrop".

To top off the exhibit, there were many other displays related to, not only Apollo 9, but other NASA manned spaceflight programs as well, which I’ll save for another time.

My only gripes about the display were that I wished there were more items and information (though, I could probably never be satisfied in this regard) and more thought put into the ambiance of the displays (for example, rather than controlled lighting, many of the exhibits were lit by very large windows which created a lot of glare that was difficult to see through on some of the displays). Also, I was sort of hoping there would have been some sort of special recognition of today being Apollo 9’s lift-off anniversary since that mission is the focus of one of their major exhibits; but now I’m just being picky.

All said and done, spending a few hours up close and personal with Gumdrop and the associated displays was a wonderful way to celebrate the anniversary of the lift-off of Apollo 9.

Apollo 9 Mission Insignia

Apollo 9 Mission Insignia


Sunday Matinee – John Glenn Chats With ISS Astronauts

As part of the events recognizing the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s (and the United States’) first orbital spaceflight, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden surprised Senator Glenn with a live video conference with current (Expedition 30) International Space Station Commander Dan Burbank, and Flight Engineers André Kuipers and Don Pettit.

There’s something poetic about watching the first American to orbit the Earth talk to the American’s that, fifty years after John Glenn’s historic flight, live in the Earth’s orbit.

All in all, it was an interesting conversation that’s definitely worth the time to watch.

Christmas Eve Earthrise

On Christmas Eve, 1968, one of the most iconic space images of all time was taken. The beautiful Earthrise image was taken by William Anders, aboard Apollo 8 — the first manned mission to the Moon (to orbit, not land).

Photo of Earth Rise from Apollo 8

(Click image for full-sized version / Source: NASA)

The words of Commander Frank Borman, as taken from the transcript of the mission, are quite fitting of what it must have felt like to see such a sight:

“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”