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The power of space: Former senator, astronaut Jake Garn remembers thrill of exploration

Published: Tuesday, April 12 2011 12:26 a.m. MDT

L-R: Jake Garn, former US Senator and astronaut, and Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium, pose for a photo at the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, Utah, Tuesday, April 5, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

April 12, 1961, 9:07 a.m. Moscow time: A Vostok 1 spacecraft blasts off from its launch site in what was then called Leninsk in the province of Kazakhstan. It carries the first human being to ever go into space, a cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin.

The spacecraft was more like what one correspondent called "a tin can sitting on a time bomb" than anything Flash Gordon flew in. The flight lasted only 108 minutes. Gagarin had no control of the craft, although a secret key was available in case of emergency. The impact of the landing would be too severe for safety, so Gargarin ejected after re-entry into the atmosphere and landed to an audience of an old woman, her granddaughter and their cow.

But this event would change the world.

Jake Garn was a 29-year-old Navy pilot at the time. "I was flying a Martin Marlin Seaplane that could go, at best, 175 miles per hour. To think that a man had flown 25 times the speed of sound was absolutely astounding," he says. He remembers talking about it with other pilots. "We talked about how it would have been nice for an American to be first, but the nationality was not a big deal. It was the achievement that was important: a human being had gone into orbit around the Earth."

And if anyone had told Garn at that time that he would someday orbit that same Earth 110 times, "there's no way I thought it would ever be possible."

Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium, was a first grader in Arlington Va., on April 12, 1961. "My teacher took an Earth globe down from the shelf and announced that the Russians had just put a man into orbit. I knew about space ships because I loved to watch Flash Gordon movies. But when my teacher talked about what the Russians had done, it all clicked in my head. That globe suddenly made sense. I knew what our Earth was."

Less than a month later Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Six weeks later President John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space."

For someone interested in space "there was nothing more thrilling than being a boy in the '60s," says Jarvis. "There was a constant beat of the drum; the Americans did this; the Russians did that. It just seemed like the natural progression of things." Jarvis built his first telescope when he was 12 "because I thought space exploration was so cool. It was a constant, natural part of life, and more and more was being done all the time. I figured we'd land on the moon and colonize it and then send spacecraft farther out, that it would go on and on and on."

It didn't go just that way, of course. But it did go: through Project Mercury and the original seven astronauts; to Project Gemini and its teams of space travelers; to Project Apollo and the 11th mission that landed men on the moon and the subsequent missions that sent a total of 12 men to the lunar surface between July 1969 and December 1972.

But then things took a different track. Space stations like the American Skylab and the Soviet Mir were launched and re-visited. And on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin's flight, the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, was sent aloft.

On April 12, 1985, 24 years to the day after Gagarin, Jake Garn went into space. By then Space Shuttle flights seemed fairly routine (that would change with the Challenger explosion in 1986), and NASA saw benefit in inviting a sitting member of Congress to take part. As a former Navy pilot, Garn was a natural choice.

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