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The perfect night for spacing out

Soviet archives via YurisNight.net
Click for video: Msnbc.com's

Alan Boyle recounts Yuri Gagarin's

historic 1961 spaceflight.

Saturday night is prime time for a party, and all the better if it's a party celebrating our past and future in outer space. This year, Saturday night is Yuri's Night, which marks the anniversary of humanity's first ride into space as well as the space shuttle's first flight.

The executive director of Yuri's Night, Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, says the event is particularly aimed at Generation Y, the young adults who will be building the spaceships of the future – and paying most of the bill. So it's a good time to remember why space exploration is worth having a party over.

Yuri's Night has been a holiday in Russia for decades, although it's called Cosmonautics Day there. The idea was to look back at the heroic achievements of Soviet space travelers - starting with Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human in space on April 12, 1961.

Hidalgo Whitesides and her husband, George Whitesides, put a different spin on the day when they planned their first space party in 2001: They were going for an event that looked toward the future rather than back at the past. Instead of a day of boring speeches, they laid plans for a night of rocking out ... geeking out ... spacing out. They also noticed that April 12 also marked the anniversary of the shuttle Columbia's first flight in 1981, which helped them get around that silly East vs. West thing.

The first Yuri's Night lit the fuse, with 64 parties in 29 countries on all seven continents (including a South Pole shindig). Seven years later, 178 parties are being planned in 50 countries on seven continents - plus a daylong celebration in the Second Life virtual world.

The same Generation Y energy is providing the propulsion for the party atmosphere, but Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides said an interesting thing has been happening over the past few years: The space establishment is getting into the swing as well.

NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley is expected to put on the biggest party this year, as they did last year, with musician Phil Lesh (of Grateful Dead fame), game designer Will Wright (known for SimCity, "The Sims" and Spore) and big-thinker Stewart Brand (famous for "The Whole Earth Catalog") among the headliners. Johnson Space Center in Texas and Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland are joining in on the fun this year, Hidalgo Whitesides said.

"We're really excited to have NASA get more involved," she told me. "NASA is recognizing the importance of reaching out to this demographic, the under-35 generation."

Why reach out to Gen-Y? Hidalgo Whitesides, who is also a blogger for Wired.com, laid it all out in a posting that includes a NASA slide presentation. The under-35 set will be in on building the Constellation spaceships that take the place of today's shuttle fleet. They'll likely be the ones riding those spaceships a decade from now to the moon, Mars and beyond.

"They're also going to be paying half the bill for the Constellation program," Hidalgo Whitesides said. "It's important to treat them as a customer."

The coolness factor plays a part in selling the next generation on the space effort - but other factors have to enter into the picture as well. Several months ago, I wrote that we could reap the benefits of outer space in five areas: entertainment, scientific exploration, new energy sources, empire-building and extinction avoidance.

The wonders of space and the thrills that come with extraterrestrial achievements fall under the entertainment category - as do earthly events that provide a taste of space, such as Yuri's Night. But that's not the end of the adventure. It's only the beginning.

To find out more about Yuri's Night events, and to learn how to get in on the action via Second Life or streaming video, check out the Yuri's Night Web site and Loretta's "Complete World Space Party Users Guide" on Wired Science. For more on the Gen-Y approach to NASA and space exploration, click on over to Open NASA and NASA CoLab. And feel free to pass along your announcements about Yuri's Night parties as well as your post-party reviews as comments below.