3,2,1… liftoff!

Yuri’s Night finally comes to Reno. Time to take your inner child to outer space.

Yuri’s Night party host Damien Janssen pretends to float in space, Captain-Kirk-style, beside his plywood space capsule.

Yuri’s Night party host Damien Janssen pretends to float in space, Captain-Kirk-style, beside his plywood space capsule.

Photo By David Robert


71 S. Wells Ave.
Reno, NV 89502

(775) 828-4107


Are you among those who worry that Christmas is too commercialized and Halloween just doesn’t last long enough? Do you find yourself enjoying the pretty pastel colors of a Martha Stewart ™ Easter egg but thinking it would be a lot more fun if you could launch it into orbit? If the officially recognized holidays aren’t meeting your creative needs, don’t fret. There are alternatives. The tradition of making up your own holiday to suit your ever-evolving artistic whims goes all the way back to … well, who knows, but at least all the way back to the early history of modern space travel.

April 14 is Yuri’s Night. Actually, April 12 is Yuri’s Night, but in Reno, as in many cities, it’s rescheduled to fall on a Saturday. It’s a worldwide celebration to commemorate the first Earthling visit into outer space and all the potential that holds for science. And art. And people who like to dance all night or build trippy sci-fi contraptions in their garages. Or whomever.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space. “Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet,” he then said. “People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty—not destroy it!”

On the same date in 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle made its debut launch.

In 2000, the Space Generation Advisory Council deemed April 12 a day to celebrate space exploration.

Gagarin’s initial plea to preserve the Earth’s beauty left much room for interpretation, inspiring stargazers and party planners of all persuasions to pay tribute to the cosmonaut’s space flight and his wishes as they saw fit.

This animatonic monkey will await inside the U-ME—Unfortunate Monkey Experience—capsule at Burning Man.

Photo By David Robert

“Yuri’s Night is like the St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo for space,” reads the Yuri’s Night Web site (www.yurisnight.net). “It is one day when all the world can come together and celebrate the power and beauty of space and what it means for each of us.”

Yuri’s Night is an easily localized event. In Australia, the Adelaide University Aerospace Club will host “casual drinks and a pub meal” at a place called The German Club. In Boston, the president of India, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, is scheduled to give a video address at a symposium on the future of space travel. Planners in Denver are working on a celebration in cyberspace, with a 24-hour DJ performance and streaming video from concurrent celebrations from all over the globe.

Here in Burning Man South, um, I mean Reno, April 12 is not too late to mark the Burnal Equinox. March 3 was the halfway mark to the 2007 Burning Man. And, of course, it’s never too early to start throwing fundraising parties for Burning Man art cars, robots and East German space stations.

Outer space meets Burning Man
“I was going to throw a party anyway,” says Damien Janssen, the local Yuri’s Night party host, a mild-mannered realtor in meticulously pressed khakis. “For seven years in a row, they’ve done the recompression party at [silkscreen and graphic-design company] Skoosh Ink. We’d have a big party there to get ready for Burning Man, and I heard they weren’t gong to do it this year. We had already decided to do a space theme. We Googled ‘space party.’ All of the sudden, I find this Yuri’s Night celebration that was already going on.”

Janssen is the creator of the big, neon praying mantis puppet that made several appearances at downtown events last summer. When he opens the door between his large suburban living room and his garage, it’s like he’s opened a portal into the props department of a do-it-yourself, sci-fi universe. His family’s bikes and sports equipment are neatly stowed, and the SUV is parked out in the driveway, leaving most of the dimly lit garage as a workshop for the half-finished space-travel appliances on which Janssen and his colleagues are working.

“When I was a kid, I could do silly things, but I couldn’t do them large scale,” he says. He recalls the frustration of trying to build an air-hockey table without the requisite technical knowledge.

He’s making up for lost time. The praying mantis puppet is slumped in a corner to make way for a blocky, plywood space capsule, large enough to walk into while it’s lying on its side. The capsule, partially funded by a grant from Burning Man, is called the U-ME, an acronym for Unfortunate Monkey Experience.

Janssen shows off the controls inside the U-ME.

Photo By David Robert

The capsule’s Eastern-bloc austerity is designed to be complemented by an interior lined with buttons and blinky lights and controls. Janssen holds up a notebook-sized control panel. It’s not attached to anything and looks like it was removed from a spacecraft built on a Hollywood back lot, circa 1960. It’s covered with buttons and rigged to act something like that old, first-generation electronic game, Simon. Nearby, on a workbench, an animatronic monkey head in a clear acrylic space helmet moves its eyes, turns its head and emits a sharp, annoying whine.

“We’re going to rig each button to a monkey emotion,” says Janssen. He plans to have the monkey inside the capsule, where visitors will sit in a metal race-car seat and press buttons.

“We’re going to videotape people in there,” he says. “It’ll work kind of like Tivo. You can watch it from our [Burning Man] camp.”

If figuring out the technology to make this all work seems daunting, Janssen, who is confident and articulate to begin with, collects himself into near Zen-master poise and utters the name “Chris Munz.”

’Nuff said. Munz is the creator of Hotshot Few Thousand, the interactive, sass-talking robot occasionally spotted at arts events trying to charm women. (See “I Robot,” RN&R, Aug. 24, 2006)

These ambitious tinkerers will be among those testing out their Burning Man theme camp ideas on Yuri’s Night. Janssen says attendees will be welcome to use the event as a testing ground for any creative ideas they may have.

“We’re encouraging theme camps to come install a mini theme camp,” he says.

Wait, what are they celebrating, exactly? Was it Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space? Was it some old Star Trek episode Janssen never got out of his subconscious? Is it that big party in the desert you’re so eagerly anticipating that you just want to macramé some lingerie out of dusty glowsticks and put a clear fishbowl on your head right now?

Actually, Janssen’s quite clear on why he spends his spare time holed up in the garage nailing together plywood triangles for imaginary space travel: “I think sometimes people get so bent under that task of work that they lost their joy. Some people golf. For me, it was always about building things. Being in the garage and the smell of solder and getting ’round people who are active like that.