Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight, when he became the first human being in space. Even today I am amazed that there are people up there on the International Space Station, eating their lunch, cutting their toenails, and sending e-mails. I can't imagine the excitement of a person doing it fifty years ago. We got humans into space before flying cars, videophones and ray guns. Looking out at the Earth, Gagarin reported something that has been more or less echoed by many space travellers since.
Облетев Землю в корабле-спутнике, я увидел, как прекрасна наша планета. Люди, будем хранить и приумножать эту красоту, а не разрушать ее!
Translation: "Orbiting the Earth in the satellite-ship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and enhance this beauty and not destroy it!" I have a poster of Gagarin, with that written on it in his handwriting. It was visible on the wall behind me during a recent Skype video-interview, and the interviewer recognized him. I'm pleased. There were a lot of things that were right about that company and I really hope they call back this week with an offer.
Sadly, Gagarin's human achievement was both driven and marred by rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, so I understand that it engendered fear instead of wonder in many Americans to know that it was a Soviet 'Kosmonaut' who was leading the way. Some animosity still lingers between the two countries, even though they are now working together on the International Space Station.
The American space program was conducted more openly than the Soviet one, with their first manned launch broadcast live on television and no chance to hide their failures. Consequently, I believe the US had higher safety standards than the USSR during the 1960s. The Soviet space agency knew their programme was dangerous, and held Gagarin back from participating in subsequent missions, not wanting to lose their poster boy. There's are rumours that the ill-fated Soyuz-1 flight that killed Vladimir Komarov departed with many unresolved problems, responding to pressure to fly over desire to be safe.
That's a lesson that gets learned over a lot. For safety to be maintained there has to be a high standard and keeping it has to be not a priority, but the priority. The maintainers have to have the knowledge, the resources and the time to do it right and everyone in the operation needs the authority to say "no" if the situation isn't up to standard. Whether you're going to into space or just to Wetaskiwin.
Update: Sarah just commented that some cities have Yuri's Night celebrations of the anniversary.