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Spaceflight's past and future

A reveler wears a helmet in the shape of a Sputnik satellite during the 2007 Yuri's

Night celebration at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

Space enthusiasts are celebrating nearly five decades of human spaceflight - and anxiously awaiting word on what will happen in the decade ahead.

The celebration reaches its peak on Monday - which happens to be the 49th anniversary of the first human flight into outer space, made by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, as well as the 29th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch. Back in 2001, spaceflight fans began organizing "Yuri's Night" parties to mark the occasion.

For the 10th annual Yuri's Night, 188 parties (and counting) have been organized in 63 countries on all seven of the world's continents. Yes, that includes the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica ... and probably someplace close to where you live as well.

Not all of the parties are on Monday night. Nineteen of them are happening tonight, and some of the big ones are coming up on Saturday. You don't even have to dress up to go out: For the first time ever, Yuri's Night is putting on a global Webcast from 2 p.m. ET Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday, courtesy of Spacevidcast.

Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, one of the founders of Yuri's Night, will be partying down Saturday night at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, where millionaire video-game guru and spaceflier Richard Garriott is due to receive the first-ever Spirit of Yuri's Night Award. "We wanted something really cool," Whitesides told me today. "It's actually an award made of aerogel."

"Cool" is the operative word when it comes to the spirit of Yuri's Night.

"We've always wanted it to be a global holiday, something that will still be relevant 12,000 years in the future, all about that first step off our home world," Whitesides said. "When I was 10 years younger, it was about making space cool - which is still part of the message. But now we're also really focused on getting out Yuri's message of getting the world together to protect this home planet."

More than two dozen video toasts have been posted to the Yuri's Night, highlighted by a tribute from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver. Crew members on the International Space Station also will beam down their greetings - which serves as further evidence that space officials are sold on the Yuri's Night concept.

"Yuri's Night is especially for the next generation, the forward-thinking people who are dreaming of our future in space," Bolden said. "Together, we'll make it happen."

NASA's future tense

But what kind of future will that be? This year the shuttle fleet is due to retire. NASA is also putting its plan to send humans back to the moon, known as the Constellation program, on indefinite hold. These sorts of developments are what's behind the anxious wait.

On April 15, just a few days after Yuri's Night, President Barack Obama is due to make a major space policy speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. He's expected to proclaim that America's ultimate space goal is to land astronauts on Mars - although the time frame for doing that isn't likely to be spelled out.

Right now the operative phrase is to follow a "flexible path" - a path that calls for step-by-step development of the technologies needed for a Mars mission.

The space agency's chief technology officer, Bobby Brown, spelled out some of those steps during a teleconference on Thursday: new heavy-lift launch systems and on-orbit assembly methods for spaceships that can go farther, advanced propulsion systems for getting to distant destinations, shields to protect astronauts from space radiation, and a strategy for landing large payloads on the Martian surface.

"We know how to land perhaps golf-cart-sized or even small car-sized payloads," Brown told me, "but we certainly don't know how to land a two-story house on the surface of Mars, particularly a two-story house right next to another two-story house that was sent ahead to prepare the way. So there are a wide range of technologies that need to be advanced to enable humans to go to that particular destination."

In the meantime, many are worried that NASA will lose its mojo. Johnson Space Center's director, Mike Coats, voiced concern over the lack of a clear blueprint for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. "In my experience, it is awfully important to have some hardwaare flying in space," he told the Houston Chronicle.

Rocket scientist Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, bemoaned the fact that there was no schedule for reaching a destination beyond Earth orbit. "In essence, by cutting Constellation while increasing NASA's budget, the president is giving the agency more money while asking it to accomplish nothing," he wrote in The New Atlantis.

The critics worry that NASA's plan, or lack thereof, will mean American astronauts will lose out to their counterparts in Russia, or China, or India. "Once upon a time, astronauts were America's heroes. Now we eliminate them in the third round of 'Dancing With the Stars,'" faux talk-show host Stephen Colbert quipped.

Next week, Obama will have to reassure a lot of people: those who worry about America's high-tech primacy, those who worry that their dreams of going to space will be deferred for another generation, and those who worry about losing their jobs in the space industry. It's true that the White House budget would give the space agency more money - but Bolden observed that NASA's growth areas would be in climate research and aeronautics rather than human spaceflight.

You'd think that such worries would dim the spirit of Yuri's Night - but Whitesides says now is exactly the time when space enthusiasts should be getting fired up.

"Yuri's Night is a very open-source, participatory type of event. We've always been trying to have people take charge," she told me. "Even in this uncertain time, it's more relevant than ever to tell people, 'Ask not what your space program can do for you, but what you can do for your space program.'"

Or, as Gagarin put it just as he was being launched into space: "Poyekhali!" ... "Let's go!"

Correction for 9 p.m. ET April 10: I fixed the reference to the director of Johnson Space Center to make it Mike Coats, not Dan Coats (the former U.S. senator from Indiana). Sorry about that!