April 12, a space date: 60 years of the first man in space and 40 years of the Space Shuttle

Silvia Vaccari


“From up here the Earth is beautiful, without frontiers or borders”, Juri Alexieievich Gagarin.

It was April 12, 1961 when Juri Alexieievich Gagarin was the first human being to orbit the Earth aboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft, beating America once again in the middle of the Cold War, after the successful launch of Sputnik 1 on October, 4 1957.

Gagarin entered the Vostok 1 spacecraft at 7:10 am, but a technical problem with the closing hatch, which was later solved, delayed the launch by almost an hour.

Figure 1 – Juri Gagarin on board the Vostok 1.

Then the extraordinary feat began: the probe traveled in an almost complete orbit around the Earth in 106 minutes, a speed of 27,000 km / h and a distance from the Earth’s surface of 327 km.

No man had ever done this; America only came into orbit after 23 days with Alan Shepard on May 5th 1961 with the spacecraft Freedom 7.

Juri Gagarin was the first human being to see the spherical shape of the Earth and to experience the absence of gravity by witnessing an unprecedented and wonderful spectacle from the small porthole of the Vostok 1.

Figure 2 – The Vostok 1 on display after the return.

Upon his return, Gagarin became a national icon and an international celebrity; the Soviet propaganda machine was put to work and naturally also the philatelic one: just 24 hours after the landing of Yuri Gagarin, the first postage stamp of the USSR was issued on 13 April 1961, followed on 17 by two other copies celebrating the extraordinary feat and its protagonist and then from the rest of the world with hundreds of commemorative stamps of the first man in space.

Figure 3 – Miscellaneous of stamps and envelopes issued to celebrate the extraordinary feat.

In this tension between superpowers – and opposing ideologies – to conquer the unknown, the stake had the role and the task of constituting itself as a witness of the moment, then, and in the future that came, up to the present day.

Figure 5 – The official postcard with Juri Gagarin’s handwritten signature.

Envelopes, letters and stamps that tell of space flights and scientific achievements that have entered the elite of humanity.


April 12, 1981: NASA called it “the boldest flight in history”.

The Space Shuttle Columbia, the STS-1, commanded by veteran John Young and piloted by Robert Crippen, brought America to the fore: not only was it the first reusable manned vehicle but it was the first ever flight tested with a real crew aboard, landing with a spacecraft on a runway.

Between 12 and 14 April Young and Crippen managed to carry out 36 orbits, successfully completing that enterprise that started the Shuttle era.

6 were the Orbiters built by NASA: the Enterprise, which was the first, not equipped for missions in orbit but to test assembly procedures and various technical requirements, the Challenger, the Columbia, the Discovery, the Atlantis and the ‘Endeavor (built after the destruction of the Challenger).

Figure 7 – The Space Shuttle at launch.

First launched into orbit exactly 40 years ago, on 12 April 1981, completed his last mission on 21 July 2011, with 135 launches including the two tragedies of the STS-51L Challenger on January 28, 1986 and the STS-107 Columbia on February 1, 2003, killing the entire crews.

Figure 8 – The Space Shuttle ready for take-off.

But in his long career the objectives have been many and successful: the launch and maintenance of satellites, including the most famous one at Hubble Space Telescope, the launch of space probes (Magellan, Galileo, Ulysses), research in the field of microgravity and the experiments conducted in the Spacelab space laboratories of the Shuttles, the beginning of the development of commercial launches and logically all the services for the Mir space stations ( known the Shuttle-Mir program, the first collaboration between the two powers after Apollo-Soyuz program 1975) and to follow the International Space Station (ISS).

Figure 9 – Cosmogram Shuttle STS-8 Challenger, 25th anniversary of NASA, postage paid with $ 9.35 and special cancellations to date of the first official postal transport in Space, launched into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center on 30.8.1983 and returned to Earth on 5.9.1983.

And for every space enterprise, the post office has been, is and will be a witness to its history: even for the Shuttles, thousands of stamps, commemorative envelopes and cosmograms document the essence of “living in Space”.