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Celebrating Yuri Gagarin

On April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter outer space.

In fact, let’s frame that in a wider-angle shot that puts it in a little better perspective:

On April 12 of the year five billion in Earthly history, a species which had once been confined to trees defeated the gravity of an entire planet and  ventured into outer space. This came after roughly one billion years of terrestrial evolution. This came from descendants of furry, warm-blooded critters who had spent millions of years scurrying about in the brush and bramble while reptilian behemoths ruled an entire world.

This accomplishment emerged at the end of some two hundred thousand years in which, for most of that time, the greatest technological marvel was the use of sharp rocks and pointy sticks. When death’s specter could loom in anything from large cats to the red blush of an infection.

This success belongs to the species which was nearly wiped out after the Toba eruption of 74,000 years ago. When there were only a few hundred reproducing females left. When our ancestors eked out a grim tale of survival.

This comes after several thousand years of formal civilization. When rocks and pointy sticks had given way to bronze and iron and steel, and the creature whose survival was once in doubt now spread across the continents, domesticated livestock, mastered the fields, and earned for themselves liberation from the raw gauntlet of Darwinian brutality. Earned for themselves time to think, and hope, and dream.

This accomplishment was the crowning achievement (at the time), and a surge forward in our understanding of the universe. The star-dappled blackness, the curtain of the Milky Way, was reachable! Man’s mind which had pondered and counted the stars was now witness to a mortal walking in that infinite gulf for 108 breathtaking minutes.

It wasn’t mysticism that got us there. It wasn’t a culture of belief and irrationality. For all the claims of ESP and psychic necromancy, for all the Uri Gellars of the world and the people who flock to them, it was Yuri Gagarin who showed, in tangible terms and measurable outcomes, what the human race is capable of.

I wonder what we can do tomorrow.

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