An annual global celebration of space exploration
via massive partying, now entering its eighth year.
Cute lead. But really, what's Yuri's Night? For that matter, when's Yuri's Night?
In reverse order, April 12th* and too much to describe in a single pat answer. The biggest part of Yuri's Night is the 'parties', various... gatherings set up by local groups. Most Yuri's Night parties, as you would expect from the name, started out as space-themed, all-night dances and raves; many still are, and you can even find videos of them floating around the Internet if you care to look. (Yuri's Night, by the way, is named after Yuri Gagarin, the first human to enter outer space.)
But in recent years, these parties have evolved to provide something for literally everybody. While one party meets in a local pub and listens to music, another is hosting a forum with stargazing clubs and the European Space Agency, while another is holding a children's costume contest in a public library, and another is having a barbecue with Apollo 13 playing on a giant projection screen... if there's a way to enjoy yourself while promoting one of the great social causes of our time, some Yuri's Night party somewhere is probably trying it out.
Geography certainly isn't a limiting factor, either. Yuri's Night has had parties in all seven continents, including Antarctica, and generally manages to hit at least six in any given year. Parties have been held in Germany, in Japan, Kuwait, Nigeria, Utah's Mars Desert Research Station, and even on NASA's CoLab Island in Second Life. Unsurprisingly, Yuri's Night is especially popular in Russia and other states of the USSR, where April 12th is Cosmonauts' Day, a national holiday. If you were wondering why Google had a bunch of space-related paraphernalia on their home page last April 12, you now know the two reasons why.
This isn't some small-time grassroots movement, though. The central headquarters for Yuri's Night (found at http://www.yurisnight.net) recruits people for parties, sends out 'party packs' with stuff to hand out and videos to watch, sends out press releases and conducts interviews, sets up webpages for parties to host their webcams on, holds an annual raffle for a ride in zero-g, and so on. Yuri's Night also took the first step this year towards being a carbon-neutral event by sending out packets of 'moon tree' seedlings to all registered parties. (These seedlings are direct descendants of seeds taken into orbit by a former Forest Service worker in the 1970s. These, in turn, are spiritual descendants of a tradition among Soviet cosmonauts to plant a tree after their first spaceflight, a tradition started... by Yuri Gagarin.)
How did this get started?
April 12th, 2001, was a unique day in space history. Not only was it the 40th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic 1961 space flight, it also marked the 20th anniversary of the launching of the first Space Shuttle. (The fact that the launching of the Columbia was surely timed to itself commemorate Gagarin's flight makes this no less notable. Okay, maybe a little.) George Whitesides, Loretta Hidalgo, and Trish Garner, members of the United Nations' Space Generation Advisory Council, were looking for ways to involve teenagers and young adults, people who typically don't care much about unmanned missions to planetary comets or attaching solar panels to the International Space Shuttle, in the field of space exploration.
This demographic, however, is certainly interested in having fun; why not create a bunch of parties, bringing together people all around the globe to enjoy themselves and, just maybe, learn to think of space as giving us things greater and more abstract than Tang. Yuri's Night was officially created as an organization in September 2000, and immediately started gaining global attention, hosting 64 parties in its first year.
2004, one of Yuri's Night's biggest years, saw a party in Los Angeles that attracted Ray Bradbury, space tourist Dennis Tito, attempted space tourist Lance Bass, and Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols, among many, many others. Los Angeles has traditionally been the 'flagship party' for Yuri's Night--this year's daylong celebration at the Griffith Observatory featured speeches by Bradbury and actor George Takei--but large parties also tend to show up in New York, Houston, Tokyo, Moscow, and San Francisco, where last year's party was (aptly) described as "NASA meets Burning Man". Other visitors and speakers at the parties of 'Yuri's Night 2007' included Anousheh Ansari, fellow space tourist Greg Olsen, NASA administrators Pete Worden and Alan Stern, planetary scientist Chris McKay, and more astronauts than you can shake a stick at.
So where can I find my nearest party?
The Yuri's Night website keeps a running list of all parties scheduled for the upcoming year starting in early fall. The largest parties begin their planning as soon as August and September, though many don't seriously start setting up until after the New Year. If you can't wait that long to find out, the website also has a list of all parties held in the previous year, with website and contact information; most of these parties are pretty likely to happen again. And with 126 official parties in 2007, the odds are good that there's one near you.
If not, start your own! Not every party is a 5,000-person extravaganza like the one in Mountain View--hold something at your local planetarium, or just invite a bunch of friends over to watch space movies if you want. Registration information is available on the Yuri's Night website; the process is generally free, with a small extra fee if you want one of the aforementioned party packs. Be warned, though, that if you set up a party you might just find random strangers contacting you, asking you what you're doing. That's just how popular Yuri's Night is getting, I'm afraid.
Full disclosure: in case you hadn't guessed by now, I was involved with "Yuri's Night 2007", serving on the executive board and hosting a local party.
*If April 12th is near the weekend, but not on it, some sites may hold their party a couple of days later or earlier to draw in more people. For example, since April 12 fell on a Thursday in 2007, a few parties were held on Friday or Saturday instead. Check your local party for details.