April 12, 1961, 9:07 a.m. Moscow time: A Vostok 1 spacecraft blasts off from its launch site in what was then called Leninsk in the province of Kazakhstan. It carries the first human being to ever go into space, a cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin.

The spacecraft was more like what one correspondent called "a tin can sitting on a time bomb" than anything Flash Gordon flew in. The flight lasted only 108 minutes. Gagarin had no control of the craft, although a secret key was available in case of emergency. The impact of the landing would be too severe for safety, so Gargarin ejected after re-entry into the atmosphere and landed to an audience of an old woman, her granddaughter and their cow.

But this event would change the world.

Jake Garn was a 29-year-old Navy pilot at the time. "I was flying a Martin Marlin Seaplane that could go, at best, 175 miles per hour. To think that a man had flown 25 times the speed of sound was absolutely astounding," he says. He remembers talking about it with other pilots. "We talked about how it would have been nice for an American to be first, but the nationality was not a big deal. It was the achievement that was important: a human being had gone into orbit around the Earth."

And if anyone had told Garn at that time that he would someday orbit that same Earth 110 times, "there's no way I thought it would ever be possible."

Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium, was a first grader in Arlington Va., on April 12, 1961. "My teacher took an Earth globe down from the shelf and announced that the Russians had just put a man into orbit. I knew about space ships because I loved to watch Flash Gordon movies. But when my teacher talked about what the Russians had done, it all clicked in my head. That globe suddenly made sense. I knew what our Earth was."

Less than a month later Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Six weeks later President John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space."

For someone interested in space "there was nothing more thrilling than being a boy in the '60s," says Jarvis. "There was a constant beat of the drum; the Americans did this; the Russians did that. It just seemed like the natural progression of things." Jarvis built his first telescope when he was 12 "because I thought space exploration was so cool. It was a constant, natural part of life, and more and more was being done all the time. I figured we'd land on the moon and colonize it and then send spacecraft farther out, that it would go on and on and on."

It didn't go just that way, of course. But it did go: through Project Mercury and the original seven astronauts; to Project Gemini and its teams of space travelers; to Project Apollo and the 11th mission that landed men on the moon and the subsequent missions that sent a total of 12 men to the lunar surface between July 1969 and December 1972.

But then things took a different track. Space stations like the American Skylab and the Soviet Mir were launched and re-visited. And on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin's flight, the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, was sent aloft.

On April 12, 1985, 24 years to the day after Gagarin, Jake Garn went into space. By then Space Shuttle flights seemed fairly routine (that would change with the Challenger explosion in 1986), and NASA saw benefit in inviting a sitting member of Congress to take part. As a former Navy pilot, Garn was a natural choice.

"I had always been interested in flight," says Garn. "My father was the first native-born Utahn to hold a pilot's license. He got his wings in 1917 and flew in World War I. So, I always wanted to be a pilot." After serving in the Navy, Garn had transferred to the Air National Guard. By the time of his Space Shuttle flight, he had logged more than 10,000 hours of flight, more than any other astronaut but one, he says.

But nothing had quite prepared him for the Shuttle flight. There's nothing like the excitement of lift-off, he says; to sit atop seven million pounds of thrust, to rise at a rate of about 80,000 feet per minute. It takes 8.5 minutes to get into orbit, where you travel at a speed of about 17,500 mph.

"You see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a 24-hour period," Garn says.

But even more than that, he says, "it's impossible to describe the beauty of the Earth from that perspective. And then you look in the other direction, and you see more galaxies than there are grains of sand on all our beaches, and you realize that the arbitrary boundaries on Earth shouldn't be so important."

Much benefit has come from the space era in the past 50 years, says Garn. Of major importance is the technology. Space exploration has brought "incredible advances in technology, and for every dollar spent, $8-10 have been spun back to the private sector." Ignorant people sometimes wonder "how we can waste so much money in space," he says, "but we don't waste a dime in space; we don't spend a dime in space. It is all spent here. Plus, NASA's budget is only .6 of 1 percent of the entire budget," he says, which is one reason Garn bemoans the shutdown of the Space Shuttle program.

Another result of the space era, says Jarvis, is its ability to still capture the hearts and minds of young students. "Whenever Jake visits the Planetarium, where he's on our board, the students flock to him. He's still the Gold Standard."

Garn recently met a mother who thanked him for getting her son back into school. "He was a dropout, and wanted nothing to do with school. Then he heard I was coming to speak to an assembly and decided he'd go to that." Something Garn said sparked an interest in astrophysics, and the student is currently completing his doctorate at Purdue. "You can never overestimate the power of space to the young mind," he says.

Or, to older minds, for that matter. Garn tells of visiting a school in Richfield with Alexi Leonov, who was the first man to walk in space. "We were standing in front of the students, and he put his arm around me. 'We fought each other in the Cold War,' he told them, 'but now this is my brother.'"

And that, says Garn, is why we must never give up space travel. "From space, you realize that the boundaries of Earth don't matter. The boundaries of skin color, of politics, of difference; the reasons we fight and kill each other — none of that matters in space. Space travel must become common; I feel strongly that someday it will change how we treat each other."

Space exploration

April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space.

May 5, 1961: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space.

May 25, 1961: President Kennedy challenges the country to put a man on the moon.

Feb. 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the Earth.

June 16, 1962: Valentina Nikolayeva Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.

March 18, 1962: Alexi Leonov becomes the first man to walk in space.

July 14, 1962: Mariner 4 transmits first pictures of Mars.

Jan. 27, 1967: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee are killed in a fire on the launch pad.

March 27, 1968: Yuri Gagarin dies in crash of jet during a training flight.

July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first men to walk on the moon.

Dec. 11, 1972: Eugene Cernan and Jack Schmitt become the last men to walk on the moon.

May 14, 1973: U.S. launches its first space station, Skylab.

April 12, 1981: Columbia is the first Space Shuttle to be launched.

April 4, 1983: Challenger is the second Space Shuttle to be launched.

June 19, 1983: Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.

April 12, 1985: Jake Garn becomes the first congressman to fly into space.

Jan. 28, 1986: Space Shuttle Challenger explodes seconds after lift-off.

Aug. 24, 1990: Space Shuttle Discovery deploys the Hubble Space Telescope.

Oct. 29, 1998: John Glenn becomes the oldest man in space.

Feb. 1, 2003: Space Shuttle Columbia explodes on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Jan. 24, 2004: President Bush proposes a new program to send humans back to the moon and beyond.

March 7, 2011: Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off on its last voyage.

Email: carma@desnews.com