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Yuri's Night
Yuri’s Night celebrates the first human in space with parties and other celebrations. Above, the first Yuri’s Night party in Los Angeles. (credit: Yuri's Night)

Celebrating space

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Celebrations are as old as human civilization, representing a communal recognition of important things. They span the year, from New Year’s Day to the Winter Solstice. As human civilization has advanced, so too has the nature of its celebrations, as evident in the proliferation of year-end holidays, from Christmas to Festivus.

Yuri’s Night celebrates the anniversary of the first human to orbit Earth: not the first Soviet in space, nor the first Russian in space, but the first human in space.

As the Space Age imbues itself into our culture, we see the development of celebrations to mark achievements and events in the history of space exploration. Some are imposed in a top-down manner, while others evolve from grassroots efforts. What follows is a personal journey through the various space-related holidays, and why they should be celebrated by everyone, not just space geeks.

Week of Remembrance

The last days of January and first days of February have proven to be a particularly dangerous time for space exploration, with a freakish cluster of deaths in this timeframe that defies logic and reason:

  • Apollo 1 (January 27)
  • Challenger (January 28)
  • Columbia (February 1)

It is also a time of achievement, marking the anniversaries of the launch of Explorer 1, Luna 9, and Apollo 14, as well as the introduction of the Outer Space Treaty. So for those in the industry this is a particularly somber time of year, a grim reminder that we don’t always get to choose whether failure is or is not an option.

Yuri’s Night

Yuri’s Night is a great example of a grassroots space celebration. Its origins lie in the Space Generation Forum at UNISPACE III in 1999. One of the items highlighted by one of the working groups was that festivals and celebrations are a great way to engage the broader public in learning about the importance of space exploration for Earth. Two events were born of this insight: Yuri’s Night and World Space Week.

Fast forward two years to Los Angeles, March 2001. Plans are well underway for a global space party on April 12th. Beginning at the International Date Line, a series of celebrations are set on each continent, with webcasts around the clock from around the globe. In L.A., a dance party is arranged by the organizers. The event was a hit, and notable for being the first space event celebrated on all seven continents and in space on the same day.

The event celebrates the anniversary of the first human to orbit Earth: not the first Soviet in space, nor the first Russian in space, but the first human in space. It also coincides with the launch of the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, providing a direct link to American audiences. The event continues to this day, and receives broad support from younger audiences. My own contributions to the event include providing media from the Lunar Library for background imagery on the dance floor during the 2001 L.A. party, staffing the ticket booth and International Space University (ISU) display table at that first party, and my favorite, the Dancing Astronaut Snoopy medal that Loretta Whitesides and I created and which is awarded to outstanding volunteers who contribute above and beyond the call of volunteer duty in making the event happen each year.

The idea of a “Moon Day” celebration seems to be growing in popularity, with more museums around the country offering space-related programming and even international events in India.

The popularity of Yuri’s Night has waxed and waned over the years, and was not always accepted by those within the space community. However, as the younger generations slowly (oh so very slowly) work their way into the space industry, it continues to receive strong support from a global audience, and will likely continue well into the future. While the form of the celebration varies immensely around the world, from poetry readings to library lectures, dance parties remain a favored way to celebrate the joy of humanity’s potential in space exploration. This year’s event falls on Saturday, April 12.

Space Day

Space Day was created by Lockheed Martin as part of their corporate STEM outreach and education efforts (before they were called such). Celebrated variously on the first Thursday, Friday, or Saturday in May, Space Day tends to be limited in scope based on available corporate resources and limited to locations where Lockheed Martin has a corporate space presence. Nevertheless, it provides a good opportunity to focus on the technology and engineering needed for space activities during the school year.

Astronomy Day (Spring)

Created by the Astronomical League, Astronomy Day is focused on encouraging the use of telescopes to observe the stars. It is strongly supported by local astronomy clubs and planetariums as it serves to build their support base. This year the Spring Astronomy Day falls on Saturday, May 10.

Moon Day

July 20th, the date of the first footstep of a human on a non-terrestrial object, is as worthy of celebration as the first human to orbit Earth. Many space advocates have been pushing since the 1970s for Federal recognition of a Space Exploration Day, though without success to date. There’s also Evoloterra.

Here in North Texas, Moon Day is celebrated (logically) at the Frontiers of Flight Museum, home of the Apollo 7 capsule and a Moon rock. As the event organizer, I engage the nearly thirty local space, science, and engineering organizations that participate in a STEM-focused public festival celebrating space exploration, and build out the program from their participation. Throughout the day we have family-friendly Moon Academy classes and adult-oriented Lunar University lectures on a myriad of space topics. There’s also a space-themed art show and multiple inflatable planetariums. We have solar telescopes and a lunchtime movie, “Postcards from the Future”. Best of all are the Lunar Sample Bags, stuffed with space information, which we distribute to the first 200 youngsters, usually in the first hour or so of the event. In 2013 over half a ton of space materials were distributed in this manner.

The idea of a “Moon Day” celebration seems to be growing in popularity, with more museums around the country offering space-related programming under a Moon Day theme, and even international events in India. As with Yuri’s Night, the way the event is celebrated will vary by location, but it does offer a much-appreciated mid-summer bump in attendance for museums. Here in Dallas, annual attendance has grown from 500 in 2009 to more than 1,200 in 2013. This year’s Moon Day is scheduled for Saturday, July 19.

International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN)

Whereas Astronomy Day is focused on observing the stars, InOMN provides an opportunity to engage the public in study of the Moon. It has received a great deal of support from the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and the former NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI, now SSERVI), but has events worldwide. Here in North Texas, this is usually celebrated at the UT Arlington Planetarium with special shows, lectures, and Moon observing with a local astronomy club from Fort Worth or Dallas, or both. This year’s event is Saturday, September 6.

Astronomy Day (Fall)

As with the Spring Astronomy Day, the Fall event is focused on study of the stars and constellations, and is supported by local astronomy clubs and planetariums. Here in North Texas, the UT Arlington Planetarium will arrange exhibits and lectures, and local astronomy clubs bring out their telescopes and highlight topics like telescope making and Dark Skies. For 2014 the Fall Astronomy Day falls on Saturday, October 4th, nicely aligning with the start of…

World Space Week (WSW)

The second celebration to arise from UNSIPACE III, World Space Week, occurs annually from October 4th through the 10th, corresponding with the anniversary of Sputnik. It was created by UN decree and is celebrated globally with parades and school events. The theme of each year’s WSW tends to align with broader UN efforts. 2013 saw a record number of events worldwide, especially in India and France. It corresponds well with the school year, making it a great opportunity to engage in educational outreach.

What’s important is that space advocates take the opportunity to engage their local communities in cultural celebrations of our space exploration activities.

There is always potential for additional celebrations. The annual anniversary of the first human footsteps on Mars will likely become an annual Mars Day. On the last Winter Solstice, the Noble Planetarium at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History held a Google Lunar Day to highlight their showing of the new Google Lunar X PRISE (GLXP) planetarium show “Back to the Moon – For Good!”. The event featured a variety of displays from local organizations like the Civil Air Patrol and Greater Fort Worth Moon Society, an incredibly popular Moonbots robotics display, and several Moon lectures. (Someone walked out of my Moon 101 lecture when I was describing the first several billion years of the Moon’s existence. North Texas is basically the buckle in the Bible Belt, which is why dates more than 6,000–10,000 years old are a touchy subject.) In that regard, I propose claiming the Winter Solstice as a space/scientific celebration opportunity, given that it represents an orbital mechanics phenomenon. This offers the opportunity to educate the public about the Earth as a body in space, and the importance of our Sun as a physical phenomenon, and gives secularists something to celebrate in the annual holiday season.

Please understand that people aren’t learning about space in school, other than a few astronomy basics, nor is the media doing a good job of reporting on what is happening in the space industry, other than a few astronomical phenomena. This is creating a cycle of ignorance in the broader populace that is hampering efforts to develop what should be a growing and prosperous industry. Ignorance can be overcome with learning and knowledge. Stupidity (q.v. the legislative and executive branches of the US government) is a much tougher nut to crack, as evidenced by years of space advocacy groups trying to educate Congress on the importance of the space industry with annual Legislative Blitzes, and yet we still find ourselves where we are with an industry withering on the vine.

What’s important, though, is that space advocates take the opportunity to engage their local communities in cultural celebrations of our space exploration activities. STEM is a potent buzzword in education efforts (and corresponding grant funding) at the moment, and there is no more effective hook than outer space for capturing the engagement and the passion of those being educated, because it doesn’t just have to be for kids.

In part, this is because space exploration engages nearly every existing scientific and engineering discipline in its execution, so there are many avenues of entry depending on one’s particular interests. At an ISU conference on space outreach in 2010, some teachers from Colorado noted that when their students developed an interest in outer space, they saw a general improvement in academic performance across the academic disciplines. So get together with other space advocates in your community and start planning for a celebration of your own! Have a space-themed float in a parade, organize a “Race for Space” fun run, or take the initiative and make your own space event in your community.