Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All or Nothing

"Let's go!" first man into space while awaiting launch

50 years ago this week, a man of slightly more than 5 feet in height was sealed inside an iron sphere atop a column of 600 lbs of high explosives. The explosives burned over the course of a minute and, rather than being obliterated, he was launched into space. 108 minutes later he had traveled around the earth, opened a hatch, jumped out and parachuted 4 miles to a safe landing.

For hundreds of years to come, children will learn his name and people will celebrate his accomplishment as the first human into space.

Before we celebrate the man, let's rethink what he did. On the actual flight he....sat, talked on the radio, guided his parachute.

And let's rethink what he didn't do. He didn't build the rocket, fund the project, contribute to the science of the rocket design, set the strategic direction of the space program or frankly anything. In fact, the engineers gave him no control on the flight for fear that low gravity could cause him to go insane.

Now to be selected, he had to meet some criteria. First, he had to be really small. Second, he had to be in top physical condition (just in case, although just in case of what is unclear). Third, he had to be an unquestionably loyal poster boy for the Soviet Union.

In fairness, he did have one other attribute. He had to believe....despite the prior five 'launches into orbit' in which: 1) two dogs died when the rocket exploded. 2) two dogs survived. 3) rocket explosion killed 100 people. 4) two dogs made it into orbit but not back. 5) two dogs got off the ground, never reached orbit but the dogs survived for 2 days in -40C weather before rescue.

Yes, this man had to believe that the 80% chance he would die was worth the 20% chance that it could BE different. For that belief, people a thousand years from now will know the name Yury Gagarin.

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