April 12, 2013 at 12:10 PM ET
By Miriam Kramer
Space enthusiasts unite! Friday night, a 1-ton rover on Mars will celebrate 52 years of human spaceflight from the Red Planet while space groupies on Earth party the night away.
"Yuri's Night" honors more than five decades of human spaceflight with parties and special events commemorating a very special day in the history of human voyages into orbit. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is getting in on the celebratory action this year as well with a festive message scheduled to beam down via social media at 4:00 p.m. EDT Friday.
On April 12, 1961 Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space when he launched off planet Earth in a Vostok space capsule. On the same day in 1981, NASA launched its first shuttle mission, kicking off a 30-year spaceflight program that led to the International Space Station. [Photos: Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space]
"We're honored to be working with the Curiosity team to take the celebration of space to new heights," Ryan Kobrick, the executive director of Yuri's Night, said. "As we continue to reach for the stars and inspire others to do the same, we're looking forward to this being the first of many Yuri's Night parties to be held on other planets."
More than 320 parties in 50 different countries on Earth have been registered through the Yuri's Night's website, including at least one in Antarctica, said Yuri's Night spokesman Brice Russ.
The special night is also being celebrated by astronauts living far above the Earth's surface.
"I'm really glad to be with you on Yuri's Night, the day — no matter where we are — where we come together to celebrate the past, the present and the future and the future of human space exploration," Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the space station's current commander, said in a video message to mark the occasion.
Gagarin's first flight was 108 minutes — much less than the six months astronauts such as Hadfield spend on board the space station — but it catapulted him into the history books. Gagarin's Vostok 1 spacecraft orbited once around the planet before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. The capsule had no way to slow itself down, so Gagarin ejected and floated to the planet's surface using a parachute instead.
Exactly 20 years later, NASA launched its first space shuttle mission. The space shuttle Columbia's first trip to space (dubbed STS-1) took two astronauts — commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen — into orbit for two days. During the 54.5-hour mission, the shuttle orbited the Earth 37 times before touching down on April 14.
NASA's space shuttles launched on 135 missions to pursue science and space station-building missions. There were two devastating failures: the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts just after launch; and the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster that killed seven astronauts returning home from orbit after a 16-day mission. .
The Columbia shuttle disaster led NASA to eventually retire its space shuttle fleet in 2011 after completing the shuttle fleet's obligations to space station construction. The space agency's remaining shuttles — Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour and the test shuttle Enterprise — are now in museums for public display across the United States.
NASA now is developing a new spacecraft and rocket, the Orion capsule and giant Space Launch System mega-rocket, aimed at launching astronauts on deep-space missions to an asteroid and Mars, beginning in 2021. In the meantime, the agency plans to rely on new private spaceships to ferry Americans to and from the International Space Station.