One Small Step | The Space Race

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win

— John F. Kennedy, speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, TX, September 12, 1962 —

Since the dawn of time, mankind has looked into the heavens and wondered what was there. The ancients believed the stars controlled man’s destiny; medieval scholars thought the heavenly spheres represented perfection and that God was to be found among them; and astronomers of the Renaissance saw that they were as imperfect as our own planet. Space captured the attention of the American people beginning in the 1930s as radio dramas like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century told stories of adventure on other worlds. The invention of motion pictures and television brought classics of science fiction like Star Trek, Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey into the homes of millions of Americans.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the exploration of space became what astronaut Frank Borman called “another battle in the Cold War.” But unlike the other contests of those years between the United States and the Soviet Union, it involved science and technology rather than bullets or bombs. In World War Two, the Germans had developed the first self-propelled rockets which they put to devastating use against the cities of Great Britain. After the war, the Soviets began to build rockets of their own. In an effort to “catch up,” the United States government enlisted the aid of former Nazi rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and Günter Wendt to bring America into the heavens. Yet the Soviets held the advantage in the early years of the “Space Race.”

“A Red Moon”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite in human history. Sputnik had two purposes: it provided the Soviets with valuable data on the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and it became a major propaganda victory over the West. In a time of heightening tensions between the two superpowers, some Americans feared that the heavens would belong solely to the communists. Soviet successes multiplied throughout the late 1950s as they launched the first animal into space later in 1957 (a dog named Laika), and returned two more to Earth three years later. The Soviets also landed the first unmanned probe on the moon in 1959. Their greatest—and last—victory in the Space Race came in April 1961 when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. He orbited the Earth for 108 minutes before returning safely home.

The American space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, had already embarked on a program to match Soviet exploration of space. 23 days after Gagarin’s flight, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space aboard the Mercury space capsule Freedom 7. His flight lasted only fifteen minutes but nonetheless showed the world that America was catching up. In February 1962, the first American victory came with John Glenn’s historic flight around the Earth aboard Friendship 7. Glenn orbited three times and returned a national hero; he was elected to the United States Senate, and then in 1998 he became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 77.

“We Choose to Go to the Moon”

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress about the future of America’s space program. In his speech, the president announced a bold vision to the country: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” NASA officials were stunned—at that point they had not yet sent an astronaut on an orbital flight around Earth, and not even the best scientists in Houston had a clue how to get humans to the moon. Yet Kennedy’s announcement electrified the nation and galvanized both the public and private sectors into the greatest scientific and technological effort in history.

The Soviet Union accepted Kennedy’s challenge of a race from the earth to the moon in 1964. The architect of their space program, Sergey Korolyov, began work on a larger space capsule that could, in theory, take cosmonauts to the moon, and Yuri Gagarin was to have led the team on their voyage. (The Soviet moon program was critically damaged two years later when Korolyov died of unknown causes, but the Soviets continued their orbital flights throughout the mid-1960s.)

The testbed for the American moonshot was NASA’s Gemini capsule. Many of the technologies and procedures used in the later Apollo program were first developed on Gemini, and the rookie astronauts of Gemini became the veterans of Apollo. On Gemini 7, astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell spent fourteen days in space, long enough for a voyage to the moon in December 1965. Neil Armstrong, flying on Gemini 8, was the first pilot to dock his ship with another spacecraft. Both he and his copilot Dave Scott nearly died when a thruster malfunctioned and sent the ship careening off course. Only Armstrong’s cool head brought the ship back under control. On the last flight, Gemini 12, Buzz Aldrin spent five hours in a spacesuit outside his ship performing various tasks, proving that a human could work in a weightless vacuum—provided that the spacecraft was supplied with plenty of a newly-invented product called “velcro.”

Even as NASA was firing astronauts into space on Gemini capsules, an equally important effort was underway on the ground. In order to land astronauts on the moon, NASA had to first design a landing vehicle of some kind. The Grumman Aircraft Engineering company spearheaded the design, delivering the first Lunar Module in 1967. The first unmanned test of this spider-like spacecraft was in January 1968, and Grumman then awaited word for the first manned flight of its creation.

The Apollo program that would eventually take Americans to the moon suffered a tragic setback in January 1967. While performing a routine battery of tests on the Apollo 1 capsule, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire that consumed the Command Module’s cockpit. The disaster nearly derailed the Apollo program, and only Frank Borman’s heartfelt appeal to the Senate’s investigation committee saved it. NASA spent the rest of 1967 fixing the problems revealed by the Apollo 1 fire in preparation for its first flight.

“One Small Step”

In October 1968, the Apollo program finally got off the ground with the flight of Apollo 7 commanded by Wally Schirra. Despite this success, Apollo was still behind schedule for an end-of-the-decade lunar landing, and NASA decided to send the next flight around the moon. In December, Apollo 8 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, FL, with astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders aboard. Apollo 8 successfully completed ten orbits around the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, and the astronauts marked the occasion by taking the first pictures of an “earthrise” and broadcasting a reading of Genesis 1:1-4 back to Earth. This heartfelt gesture at the close of a very difficult year for the United States and the world thrilled the hearts of millions—and it also sparked a lawsuit from atheist groups offended by the broadcast.

The Apollo 9 and 10 missions focused on testing the Lunar Module in space, and on July 16, 1969, the world watched eagerly as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins hurtled into space aboard the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module “Eagle” while Collins remained aboard the Command Module “Columbia.” The Eagle descended toward the lunar surface, landing safely on the moon at 4:17pm Houston time. Buzz Aldrin then spoke to Mission Control and those listening to the NASA broadcast. He asked them “to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then took communion off the radio as Armstrong looked on. At 8:56pm Houston time, Neil Armstrong opened the “Eagle’s” hatch, climbed down the ladder, and became the first human to walk on the moon; as he stepped off the lander he spoke the immortal words: “That’s one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind.” The television audience in the United States and approximately 450 million radio listeners heard these words and subsequent broadcasts from the Sea of Tranquility. After two moonwalks,

during which the astronauts placed an American flag and commemorative plaque on the lunar surface and spoke to President Richard Nixon via radio, the “Eagle’s” ascent stage lifted off and docked with Collins on the “Columbia.” Four days later, “Columbia” splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the most famous Americans alive at the time. (Sadly, Michael Collins was largely ignored by both the public and the press.)

“It’s Been a Long Way, but We’re Here”

After the historic flight of Apollo 11, the American people largely lost interest in manned spaceflight; Kennedy’s vision had been fulfilled, and there were other developments on Earth that deserved attention—especially the war in Vietnam. The Apollo 12 flight sent two more astronauts to the moon, as did four other flights. A brief resurgence of public interest in NASA occurred in April 1970 when an onboard malfunction crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert were forced into the Lunar Module “Aquarius,” which they used as a lifeboat to survive for four days until splashing down safely in the Command Module “Odyssey.” (Apollo 13 proved that Grumman’s design of the Lunar Module was sound, and Grumman issued a “towing bill” as a gag to North American Rockwell, designer of the Command Module, for $312,421.) And yet NASA was soon hampered by budget cuts from Congress, and the final three Apollo missions were canceled. The last Apollo capsule to fly was the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a joint mission between the Americans and Soviets; it docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in July 1975 in what became a symbolic end to the Space Race.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union shifted their focus of space exploration toward space stations after Apollo 11. The Soviets launched the first orbital station Salyut 1 in April 1971, and the United States put up three Skylab stations between 1973 and 1974. Two other space stations were eventually launched: the Russian “Mir” station which orbited from 1986 until 2001, and the International Space Station which was launched in 2000 and can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night on Earth.

The United States also developed a reusable orbital vehicle, the space shuttle, in the 1970s. The first, a test vehicle not meant for flight in outer space, was named the Enterprise after thousands of Star Trek fans petitioned NASA to pay tribute to the fictional starship. Five other shuttles were built by NASA: Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor. Two were tragically lost with all hands; the Challenger exploded soon after launch in 1987, and the Columbia broke up while reentering the atmosphere in 2003. The shuttles served as America’s only space vehicles for three decades, and the final flight took place in February 2011. Of course, mankind continues to look to the stars, and NASA plans to move forward with new vehicles and missions to return us to the moon and, perhaps, reach deeper into the void of space toward Mars.

The legacy of the Space Race reaches far beyond the political turmoil of the Cold War. The new technologies developed for the moonshot fueled discoveries in aerospace engineering, electronics, and telecommunications; many devices present in American homes today find their origins in the Space Race. It also spurred a renewed interest in astronomy, mathematics, and engineering that continues today. The thousands of satellites orbiting today were made possible only by the Space Race. In fact, whatever device you’re using to listen to this podcast probably traces its origins to the Space Race. It is important to remember the purpose of NASA and America’s exploration of space, a message encapsulated in the words on the plaque left on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969: “We came in peace for all mankind.”