We can shed our skins and swim into the darkened void beyond
We will dance among the worlds that orbit stars that aren't our sun
All the oxygen that trapped us in a carbon spider's web
Solar winds are whispering, you may hear the sirens of the dead
-Starblind, from the Iron Maiden album The Final Frontier
April 12th, 1961, we took our first small baby steps towards shedding ourselves of this earthly skin and learning to swim in the vast emptiness that is space, the final frontier. A Soviet pilot, Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, rode his Vostok-K modified ICBM from Baikonur Cosmodrome to make one single lap around the earth. He went faster than anyone had ever gone. He went higher than anyone had ever gone. And Yuri Gagarin proved that we, as a species; that our advanced breed of chimpanzees on a boring world orbiting a star considered smaller and less impressive than average; that we have a chance, an opportunity, a real capability to leave this pale blue speck and step into the cosmos beyond.
The Earth is infinitely small in a vast and awesome universe, to steal a phrase from Carl Sagan, and we are infinitely small beings upon it, yet we have found a way to leave this tiny spot of safety and refuge, and in it, we have become greater beings. It is entirely possible that no intelligent species flourish in this universe, but it is more possible that some do, and manage to find only their destruction as they harness new power and abilities. We have split the atom and not found total failure, despite possessing for over fifty years the ability to strike our civilization asunder and damn it to failure. Gagarin rode a rocket into space and proved that we can take a weapon of war and make it into a mission of science and peace.
The true battles of the Cold War were not won in the hills of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam but in the minds of people who watched how the West rose above the USSR's space challenge and conquered the moon, but instead of sticking a star-spangled banner into the Earth and claiming it for the United States and capitalism, the Americans who went chose the words "In peace and hope for all mankind" to leave behind. Gagarin was a Soviet pilot, trained to kill other men in aerial combat, yes, but that doesn't lessen his impact to peace and greatness, and indeed, our ability to survive beyond our fragile Earth.
This man was brave. He was heroic. He looked at something designed to explode and kill thousands and sat atop it, pointed it high, and rode it where it was never designed to go: into a future where Russians, Americans, Europeans and Asians and all the good folk on this blue dot can communicate peaceful, exchange information, friendships, and work a little more towards not being Chinese and Australian and Mexican and Egyptian, but being humans.
When Gagarin was in orbit, he wasn't just the Soviet Union's representative in space; he was humanity's representative. He was one lonely man in a small capsule that represented our hopes and dreams. He was a hero back then, but is more forgotten today, thanks to his sad, premature death in 1968, the inherit politics surrounding his launch, and the supercession of his legacy in 1969 by three other brave explorers named Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins.
I urge you to remember him. Remember Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd and the other early explorers of the Final Frontier; and I dare you to find ways to emulate his bravery and accomplishments.