April 3, 2012 at 11:23 PM ET
Yuri's Night has been celebrating space odysseys since 2001, on the 40th anniversary of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's history-making launch into orbit — but it's much more challenging to find cause for celebration this year.
First of all, it's been just a year since the huge golden anniversary of the first human spaceflight, in 2011. To mark the occasion, Yuri's Night put on more than 600 events in 75 countries, and that's a hard act for anyone to follow. Perhaps more importantly, this year marks the first Yuri's Night since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet. For the next few years, there's no way to launch astronauts from U.S. soil.
"With the shuttle era coming to an end, there's going to be a lot of nostalgia this year," Veronica Ann Zabala-Aliberto, director of marketing for Yuri's Night 2012, told me this week. "It's going to be an interesting time to see how people bridge the gap."
The past, present and future of spaceflight — and of Yuri's Night — will be up for discussion on Wednesday when Zabala-Aliberto and I get together for "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show that takes place in the Second Life virtual world and on BlogTalkRadio. The show gets under way at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT/SLT). Feel free to drop in or tune in, and if you can't listen to the stream in real time, you can always download the podcast via BlogTalkRadio or iTunes.
Yuri's Night traditionally focuses on April 12, which is the anniversary of Gagarin's launch as well as the first shuttle flight in 1981. But not all of this year's more than 150 events take place on that date. The Romanians get the party started with a school event titled "Dancing With the Stars" on Thursday, and the Peruvians close it out at an aerospace conference on April 26. In between, there's a series of parties, lectures, workshops and other events on all seven continents (yes, including the South Pole on Antarctica).
There'll be two parties in Second Life and one in Star Trek Online (just head for Quarks Bar at Deep Space Nine). And even as he's counting down to the big day, executive director Ryan Kobrick is working to get more venues on board, across the planet and off-planet as well.
"It's never too late to register," Kobrick told me. "It's for all ages and all demographics. Having a handful of friends over for dinner counts for Yuri's Night, if you go with that theme. Every Yuri's Night party is unique. The point is to bring people together and celebrate the past, present and future of spaceflight."
This year, the celebration may be accompanied by a sense that the future of spaceflight is not assured. NASA's plan calls for commercial ventures to start launching astronauts to the space station in 2017 or so, setting the stage for trips beyond Earth orbit in the 2020s. The first targets for those voyages of exploration include near-Earth asteroids, with Mars as the eventual goal. But that vision is still in flux, and the budget that's been proposed for NASA is more suited for an era of retrenchment rather than expansion.
This isn't the first time NASA has gone through a painful transition. "We are currently experiencing the same timeline as when the Apollo program ended," Zabala-Aliberto pointed out. But the current situation does pose an extra challenge for U.S. human spaceflight.
"This gives us a catalyst to fight more, to let the general public know, 'No bucks, no Buck Rogers," Zabala-Aliberto said.
The tools being used to get the word out include events like the ones organized through Yuri's Night, as well as online venues such as Facebook and Twitter, YouTube and Ustream, LinkedIn and Flickr. This year, Kobrick is aiming to have live updates posted to Live.Yurisnight.net, which is powered by Posterous. There's also a video series with the theme "I Celebrate Yuri's Night Because..."
"We've always had a foot in the door with all the different channels that have come out," he said.
But the key is to keep the spirit of Yuri's Night going for the rest of the year as well, and that's what Zabala-Aliberto and her colleagues are aiming to do — by working with other space-minded organizations, taking advantage of the technological tools at their disposal, and letting people know "that they do have a say in the space program, and they can make a difference."
"Yuri's Night gives everybody that sense that you can still be a part of it," Zabala-Aliberto said. "You're around like-minded people. ... It's not going to be a wake, that's for sure."
Join us for a Yuri's Night kickoff on "Virtually Speaking Science," and check out the Yuri's Night website for a party near you. While you're clicking,
"Virtually Speaking Science" takes place at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday at the MICA Small Auditorium at Stella Nova in Second Life and is broadcast on BlogTalkRadio. Many thanks to the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics for co-sponsoring the Second Life event. The hourlong show will be archived on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes. Check out these other podcasts from "#VSScience":
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.