April 12 is one of the most significant anniversaries in the history of space exploration. In 1961, the Soviet Union launched the first man into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, aboard Vostok 1 (left). Exactly two decades later, the United States launched its first space shuttle, Columbia, with astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen at the controls.
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The Space Age is more than a half-century old, so just about every day in the calendar marks the anniversary of some amazing space accomplishment. Even so, April 12th is a stand-out. It marks not one big event, but two: the first manned spaceflight, and the first flight of the space shuttle.
The first milestone took place in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin took a place in the history books as the first human in space. The dashing young cosmonaut orbited Earth once aboard his Vostok 1 capsule. He parachuted the last few thousand feet to the ground. He became a hero of the Soviet Union, and an international celebrity.
American astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen earned their own place in history exactly two decades later, when they piloted the first space shuttle.
LAUNCH CONTROL: 5, 4, we've gone for main engine start...and liftoff! Liftoff of America's first space shuttle! And the shuttle has cleared the tower.
Aboard the shuttle Columbia, they orbited Earth for two days before gliding to Earth in California.
COLUMBIA: Touchdown! Welcome home, skipper! Houston, Columbia's on the runway. MISSION CONTROL: Welcome home, Columbia! Beautiful, beautiful!
And instead of parachutes, they reached the ground via the same kind of stairs used for commercial airliners -- adding another "first" to the space history books.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011