Though unplanned, 12 April has over time accumulated a number of historically significant events. This year sees a lot of zeroes turning up on some of those events. In reverse chronological order:
12 April 1981
First launch of the Space Transportation System with Columbia (OV-102) at 1200 UTC (0700 EST). 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth, John Young and Robert Crippen climbed into an untested vehicle and went for a ride. The congruence with Gagarin’s flight was entirely coincidental, as the original 10 April flight had been scrubbed due to a computer malfunction. The flight was not without problems, most notably with the tile heat shield system, but they got it up and down.
I watched the lift-off with a half-dozen other people from a hotel room in Wilmington, NC. Two days later I skipped school to watch the landing. It was amazing to watch an honest-to-God spaceship flying only 20 years after a human had first gone into orbit.
12 April 1961
50 years ago today Yuri Gagarin left the ground at 0607 UTC and just under two hours later came back, having completed a single orbit and becoming the first human to achieve spaceflight. While the hardware had been flight-tested lofting various animals into orbit, it still takes a special courage to do something that has never been done, and to engage in an activity in which, as the engineers say, there are multiple failure nodes. The achievement was all the more remarkable when one considers that only 3 1/2 years earlier the first man-made object of any type was lofted into orbit.
It’s a little-known fact that Gagarin didn’t get to ride the re-entry capsule all the way to the ground, but ejected at altitude and parachuted down.
12 April 1861
At 0430 on the morning of 12 April 1861, Confederate forces started the bombardment of the Union-held Ft. Sumter. 34 hours later fort commander Major Robert Anderson agreed to evacuate the redoubt. While no deaths were recorded on either side during this action, it was the start of the bloodiest and most divisive conflict in American history. Before the cessation of hostilities four years later, some 625,000 people on both sides would be killed, and well over 400,000 would become casualties. The number of civilian casualties is unknown.
It’s not uncommon to hear the conflict refered to “The War of Northern Aggression” in the South, but the South, particularly South Carolina, was the major instigator. Shortly after Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election, South Carolina declared for secession and by February 1861 six other states had followed suit. President James Buchanan (Lincoln wouldn’t be inaugurated until 4 March), while watching the country literally dissolve before his eyes, could do no more than issue protests.
Other significant events on 12 April
1606 England adopts the Union Jack.
1864 Battle of Blair’s Landing, LA. OK, I just threw that in because of the eponymy. It was a Union victory.
1945 U.S. forces liberate Buchenwald concentration camp.
1985 Jake Garn becomes the first sitting politician in space. Although a highly experienced military pilot, Congressman Garn suffered space sickness to a degree that he became known as ‘Barfin’ Jake Garn. To his credit, he maintained a sense of humor about it.