It was 60 years ago, on April 12, 1961, that the first human was launched into space aboard the Soviet Vostok 1 spacecraft. Onboard was 27-year-old cosmonaut and citizen of the Soviet Union, Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin became not only the first human in space, but also the first to complete an orbit of the Earth. It would be nearly a year later, on February 20, 1962, before NASA would launch astronaut John Glenn on a similar orbital flight. Vostok 1 was Gagarin’s only spaceflight but he served as the backup crew to the Soyuz 1 mission.
Twenty years to the day after Vostok 1, April 12 would once again mark another historic space first. It was 40 years ago, on April 12, 1981, that the Shuttle Columbia and mission STS-1 launched from the Kennedy Space center in Florida with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen onboard. The Space Shuttle Program had been approved by Congress in 1972 when astronaut John Young was walking on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16. Nine years later, Young would command this first test flight of Shuttle Columbia.
NASA did not deliberately plan for the launch to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Vostok 1. In fact, Columbia’s first launch attempt was on April 10, but was scrubbed because Columbia’s four primary general-purpose computers failed to provide correct timing to the backup flight system. As it turned out, April 12 became a doubly famous date in spaceflight history marking both the launch of Vostok 1 in 1961 and STS-1 in 1981. The Shuttle Program would continue for 30 more years, until the final flight of STS-135 on July 8, 2011.
As we celebrate these two significant spaceflight anniversaries, NASA is preparing for the next launch of the Commercial Crew Program with the Dragon Spacecraft. The launch, on a Falcon 9 rocket, is targeted for no earlier than Thursday, April 22, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission will launch NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough as well as Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet. The four astronauts are scheduled to spend a little more than six months onboard the International Space Station.