Ushering in the Final Frontier -- Manned Spaceflight

"I am a friend, comrades, a friend!" Those were the first words from the "Columbus of the Cosmos" Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin, to a woman and a girl near where his capsule landed on April 12, 1961. Mankind's first giant leap took place on this day, which was a very huge one. It is even fast assuming an extremely significant relevance on the space calendar vis-à-vis the future of humanity beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Exactly twenty years after this flight, on April 12, 1981, the American Space Shuttle program had its first; Columbia STS-1 launched astronauts John W. Young, an Apollo veteran -- the ninth person to walk on the moon in 1972, and Robert L. Crippen to Space. April 12 wasn't particularly chosen for this launch, but the original planned date had slipped off for technical issues. Until their retirement with Atlantis STS-135 in the third quarter of 2011, these reusable space vehicles were the flagship of manned spaceflight since the Apollo times.

Twenty years after the launch of STS-1, and forty years after Yuri's flight, in 2001, "Yuri's Night" was started to commemorate this flight of the Columbus of the Cosmos, and to mark this launch of Columbia. It will be held on April 12 across the globe by space enthusiasts and institutions, essentially in the U.S., and the Russian Federation. And I am proud to mention here that the co-founder of this spectacular night, Loretta Hidalgo-Whiteside was the recipient of the maiden Todd B. Hawley Visionary Award in 2005.

The International Space University with its permanent site in Strasbourg, France, has been the academic home of space professionals, and training ground for emerging space leaders across the globe. ISU's first program, the space studies program, practically modeled after "manned spaceflight" -- of leaving the base to some destinations -- with its unprecedented 'on-Earth' and 'off-Earth' yearly SSP sites, started in MIT and has moved to most continents of the world. It was founded by its three visionaries: Peter H. Diamandis, Todd B. Hawley and Robert D. Richards in 1987. The institution's ever-lasting credo was written out by these visionaries on April 12, 1995.

This year, ISU celebrates her 25th year -- the silver jubilee of actively producing space leaders that have gone ahead to shape the future of space programs and activities on Earth and in the cosmos around. Talking here about the cosmos -- at the 2040 horizon, ISU is even more determined to establish the "off-Earth campus to form a core element of the University's educational and societal actions related to exploration and technology development."

Just a few years ago, specifically, in 2007, the international space community led by the United Nations commemorated 50 years of active space exploration -- marking the launch of the first satellite, the Russian SPUTNIK-1 which was launched into space in 1957 (also, International Geophysical Year) heralding the beginning of the Space Age. Serving as a National Coordinator for Education and Public Outreach of this UN-led program, International Heliophysical Year, I marked April 12, and explored the ideals of "scientific but people-oriented education, SPOE: Art and Humanities in Science and Technologies" -- a concept I formulated. A scientific education and outreach program was organized for a public model school in Lagos, Nigeria, captured in a national daily. And in collaboration with Stanford University, live research equipment was demonstrated for the students - educating them about the sun, manned spaceflight and exploration. I taught them about the encompassing nature of knowledge; and therefore softened the science with art. The students received talk on world citizenry, career possibilities that culminated in a Q & A session. We went ahead to dance to popular local tunes! And the results? The students got inspired -- they wanted to become everything from astronauts, to surgeons, engineers, scientists, and even a "space artist." Some of them are already in some leading universities preparing for their dream careers, and are being guided under the Young EarthSpace Scientists (YESS) program.

There's an emergence of a new manned space order. The perfect docking between Shenzhou-8 and Tiangong-1 (a prototype space station) in 2011 has laid a perfect foundation for manned spaceflight in China. Shenzhou-9 is expected to launch the first people to its "Heavenly Palace," the crew may include the first female taikonaut in the third quarter of this year, Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of the country's manned space program recently declared. This number will be joining the six Chinese astronauts launched on three missions to orbits starting with Yang Liwei, on Shenzhou-5 mission.

India has been really inspiring too, with their novel scientific satellites and vehicular programs also shooting for the moon. New opportunities are now open to all; even African nations now have recognizable participation in small satellites, astronomy and, after sixty years of the IAC, held its first congress in Africa last year.

We are indeed in a golden era of active space exploration. The science research community now has unprecedented opportunities to contribute to international standard research. The ISS is delivering dividends to its owners and by extension to the scientific community worldwide. There is an emerging sub-orbital industry. Private companies are now venturing beyond the sub-orbital -- building rockets that may reach the other planetary bodies. Elon Musk is set to be the first entrepreneur to put a man in orbit. What exciting times we are in.

To take a cue from the foremost rocketry theorist, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, who lived from 1857 to 1935: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever."

In essence, to usher in this next future --the final frontier -- these three significant occurrences of Yuri's flight, launch of STS-1, and the founding of ISU are enough to seal the 12th of April as the "World Manned Spaceflight Day". This could mean having a more holistic program planned for this day, every year, programs that could encompass the ideals of manned spaceflight, exploration and education, etc., in the daytime. And of course, further popularize the social event of Yuri's Night, which has done so greatly in making this day very popular worldwide. This is not to undermine the UN-supported "World Space Week" of October 4, which technically marked the launch of SPUTNIK-1. Space is vast, and in order for humans to further take the giant leaps of colonizing the other planets -- terraforming and living on there -- we need to ensure the growth of humans into multiplanetary beings and some more emphasis has to be paid to manned spaceflight. We can start by dedicating April 12 of every year to manned spaceflight in its entirety. Ad Astra.