"Everybody Say 'Poyekhali'!" -- Yuri's Night in Boston

Events of April 7th and April 13th 2012

I'm aware some of you who read my post about Yuri's Night two weeks ago may have just read those dates and said something like:

"What gives? Yuri Gagarin's flight was April Twelfth, 1961! What do the Seventh and the Thirteenth have to do with anything?"

You all would be totally right -- April Twelfth is the anniversary of the day cosmonaut Gagarin became the first human in space, and the traditional day for accompanying "Yuri's Night" celebrations among space enthusiasts. But this year, the twelfth happened to fall on a Thursday, and Thursday nights aren't really the most ideal time for a party, especially for students who have school the next day.

So, the college-sponsored Yuri's Night events here in Boston ended up being the weekends before and after the week of the 12th. The first event I went to, on Saturday the 7th, was organized by Harvard University's SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) and STAHR (Student Astronomers At Harvard-Radcliffe) clubs.

I hadn't been to Harvard since I'd taken a campus tour two years before when I'd been looking at colleges, and I'd never been to a Yuri's Night party that had more than two people (counting myself) so I wasn't sure what to expect. Would everybody have fancy costumes, like I'd seen in some photographs online? I wore my "Space Shuttle 30 Years" shirt and my NASA baseball cap, added a few extra mission pins to my lucky denim jacket, and hoped for the best. Would it take a long time to get to the Harvard Science Center from Boston University? I left half an hour early, just to be safe.

That was good, because the cab driver didn't know where the Science Center was, so he just dropped me off at Harvard Square. Luckily, I was able to ask a student for directions, and he told me it was "Probably that way." I started walking "that way" and saw a building with an observatory dome on the roof, which I figured was probably the right place. When I got to the entrance, I saw a sign reading "Harvard University Science Center" -- success, and with 15 minutes to go!

The security guard in the building said he wasn't aware that any big party was going on, so I re-checked the online listing for the party to find out where exactly in the building it was. The location listed was "Room 805," so I took the elevator to the eighth floor and headed in the direction of what sounded like conversation. I found a room decorated with astronomy posters where pastries had been set out on a folding table.

"Is this the Yuri's Night party?" I asked the students at the table, hopeful.

"Yup." One girl said.

"Phew!" I remarked, and introduced myself.

"Wow, you sure have a lot of NASA paraphernalia!" The girl said, approvingly.

"Well, I'd never been to a real Yuri's Night party before, so I wasn't sure how to dress."

"It looks great." She told me.

Glad to see that both of the things I had been worried about had been resolved, I relaxed and chatted with the other students. We were scheduled to observe the sky using the observatory telescopes on the roof, but it had gotten cloudy. Even so, we stepped out onto the "porch" outside of the room to look at the sky. It was still cloudy, but the view of Cambridge was pretty great.

After two more people had arrived, the decision was made to dim the lights and start the movie First Orbit. This unique film shows a nearly continuous orbit of the Earth as seen from the International Space Station, simulating what Yuri Gagarin would have seen on his flight. Recordings of the transmissions between Gagarin's Vostok capsule and the ground are included at the appropriate moments (with English subtitles, of course) as are historic radio transmissions that occurred during the flight.

Most of us had seen video of the Earth from space before, but it was very different to see these very long shots showing the view in real time, rather than sped-up with time-lapse. In particular, the time spent on the night side of the Earth seemed to go on for a very long time -- we see so many photographs taken of parts of the Earth in daylight by astronauts that it's easy to forget that half of every orbit is spent in darkness! First Orbit felt less like watching a traditional movie and more like watching some slow, beautiful event in nature, like the tide coming in or the sun rising.

Near the end of the film, Yuri's Night Executive Director Dr. Ryan Kobrick came in with his girlfriend Jen. I recognized Ryan from the Aero/Astro events at MIT I'd been to and waved. He passed out stickers and temporary tattoos with the Yuri's Night logo on them to all of us, and then sat down to watch.

After the movie ended, we all headed up to the observatory dome. Even though it was still cloudy, we were able to see the telescope, and the impressive constellation patterns painted all over the inside of the building. We posed for a picture around the telescope.

"Everybody say 'Poyekhali!'" I joked. ("Poyekhali", or "Off we go!" was the first thing Gagarin said after launch.)

Most of the pastries the students had laid out were still untouched, so I took a bag of cookies back to my dorm to share with the girls on my floor. I fell asleep happy that night -- my first real Yuri's Night party had been a blast, and it wasn't even really Yuri's Night yet!

On Wednesday, the 11th, I went to MIT to hear Nicholas Patrick speak, as I wrote about last week. On the 12th itself, I didn't really have the opportunity to do anything except wear a space shirt to class. But Friday the 13th turned out to be a very lucky day for me, because it was the day BU SEDS had our Yuri's Night celebration, heading to the Museum of Science to see their show The Sky Tonight: LIVE! and then take part in their free Friday night stargazing.

I dressed up again and headed to the Mechanical Engineering building to meet up with the rest of the BU SEDS group. After some confusion, we found ourselves hopping on the "T" headed for the Science Park station. As someone prone to motion sickness, the sudden decelerations of the Green Line are one of my least favorite things about Boston, but being in the company of my friends helped distract my mind (and stomach). After getting off the "T," we had a good laugh at the sight of the Museum's T. rex model decorated with a marathon runner's placard in honor of the coming Monday's Boston Marathon. (Naturally, he was runner number "65,000,000.")

We got to the planetarium just in time and found seats right in the center of a section -- the perfect place to see the whole dome. We laughed and joked as we waited for the show to start. There seemed to be a lot of children there on a school trip, and I was happy to see that they looked excited for the planetarium show.

The host showed us some of the constellations and planets that would be visible from Boston that night, as well as how the sky would look different if we didn't have to deal with the glow of the city lights. Then, she used the digital projectors in the dome to simulate flying out into space to see those planets up-close. It was all very cool, but my favorite part came when we were "flying" around the moon.

"And now we're on the side of the moon that's in darkness at the moment. Unlike the Earth, there are no city lights visible on the night side." The host said.

"... yet." I whispered, just loud enough for the other kids in the SEDS group to hear.

"Not yet!" A little boy somewhere in front of us shouted. All of us voiced our agreement.

After the show let out, we had half an hour until the stargazing started. Upon seeing a musical staircase, where walking up the steps would break infrared beams and cause sounds to play, one of the engineers in the group decided it would be fun to figure out the musical scale the staircase was using, so that we could play a song by coordinating our motions.

Sadly, after about 15 minutes of intensive investigation (including some help from a very nice little boy who was very eager to run up and down the steps for science), we discovered that the computer controlling the staircase reset the sounds every time someone walked up or down it, meaning that there was no constant scale.

However, checking out the museum gift shop quickly caused us to forget our disappointment as we ran around marveling at the various science toys on sale. (Where were those wearable pteranodon wings when I was a little kid?) In the Astronomy section, we broke into a spontaneous chorus of "Awwwww" upon seeing the cutest stuffed versions of the Earth and moon imaginable. After the requisite hugging, I absent-mindedly wondered how far apart the moon and Earth would have to be held to have the distance between them be at the correct scale.

Now, my time in SEDS has taught me that if you ever absent-mindedly wonder something of this nature out loud around an engineer, they will take your question completely seriously and try to calculate an answer. So, before you know it, we were being directed on how far apart to stand, where to hold our plush celestial bodies, and how to link hands to make sure our Earth and moon remained a constant distance apart while the moon "orbited." A lot of fun, the kind of silly fun that happens when you overthink everything.

We headed up to the observatory and waited in line to see the planet Venus, taking in the view of the Charles River and telling space jokes to pass the time. I'd wanted to come to observing night at the Museum of Science since I'd arrived in Boston, so it was a real treat to finally get to see Venus through the observatory telescope. Like the moon, Venus has phases (as Galileo first observed), and at the time, it was in a "half-Venus" phase. The man in charge of the telescope reminded us that Venus was getting closer and closer to the sun and would pass in front of its face on June 6th.

"I really need to see it. I missed the 2004 one, and I have had nightmares about missing this one. Seriously." I confided. The man voiced his sympathy. After all, the next Venus transit after this year won't be until 2117!

I smiled both outside and inside as we headed back down the stairs from the observatory and back to BU. I'd had such a wonderfully spacey day surrounded by like-minded people. But the one who I felt had best captured the spirit of Yuri Gagarin had been that little boy in the planetarium who had cried not "Impossible!" but "Not yet!"