Saturday, July 20, marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most remarkable technological achievements in human history. I am referring to the US putting a man on the moon and, of course, returning his crew and him safely. Perhaps, most people under the age of 60 cannot fully comprehend and appreciate the difficulty and complexity of such an achievement, particularly with the technology available in the late 1960s. For example, computers were in their infancy, and much of the complicated calculations had to be done by hand.
Just stop and think about that for a minute. Today, with all the technology we take for granted most of us have trouble merely adding up a restaurant bill. Try to imagine the skill required to calculate the flight information for the Apollo flights, with the exact precision required.
For centuries people have looked at the moon and the stars and imagined that space travel would become a reality some day. Many people believed, and still do, that life exists on other planets. Why not, they say; the universe is so vast. Why should earth be the only planet with all the prerequisites necessary to sustain life? Science fiction authors, such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells helped feed this imagination with fictional tales of space travel and alien creatures known as “little green men.” Some people have even theorized that aliens had actually landed on earth in the distant past.
Finally, in the mid-twentieth century space travel became a realistic possibility. It was the Germans that led the way. In the 1930s German scientists researched and built ballistic missiles capable of suborbital flight.
During WWII they focused primarily on the military applications of these missiles. By 1944 they had developed rockets, known as V2 rockets, that were capable of traveling up to 200 miles carrying a warhead of 2,500 pounds at a speed of up to 2,500 mph. The rockets, when launched from the Nazi’s base in Peenemunde in northeast Germany could (and did) reach England. Moreover, due to the supersonic speed and the primitive missile defense technology of the day there was no effective defense against these missiles.
The missiles did some damage and terrorized the populace, but fortunately, their accuracy was not the best. However, some historians believe that if the war had continued for a few more years, these weapons’ effectiveness might have progressed to the point where they could have swung the balance of power to Germany, and, perhaps even enabled them to win the war. Other historians disagree. Luckily, the war ended before we had to find out.
After the war the Americans, the Russians and the British were all desperate to acquire the surviving German scientists and engineers as well as their records and unused equipment and ordnance. The competition was fierce as all three powers recognized the potential advantages. It was the dawn of the Cold War. This was widely seen as a battle between capitalism and communism, good versus evil.
Fortunately, the US got the biggest prize, Werner von Braun and most of his team. It was they who developed the US’s missile and space exploration program. Yes, von Braun and the others had collaborated with the Nazis during the war and likely had been Nazis, themselves, but the US powers-that-be, in their desire to utilize their expertise, overlooked that.
Now, 50 years later, PCers can object to that, but at the time we were in an existential struggle with the Soviets, and if we didn’t get them the Soviets would have. Both countries had nuclear capability, and we lived every day with the possibility of a Russian missile attack. We now know that we did come perilously close to war at least once, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
People were building fallout shelters and storing up on nonperishables. Schoolchildren participated in drills in the event of a nuclear attack by hiding under their desks! (Little did we know how futile that really was.) Against this backdrop the conventional wisdom was that whoever controlled space would come out on top. If you think I am exaggerating ask your grandparents or check your history.
Below please find some of the significant developments in the space race leading up to the moon landing:
1. In 1945 the US sent von Braun and his team to the newly-established White Sands Proving Ground in NM. Encompassing 600,000 acres over five counties in NM, WS is the largest military installation in the US. It was there that testing of missiles and atomic weaponry was carried out.
2. By September 1949 the Soviets had acquired their own nuclear capability. This made us verrrry nervous.
3. As early as 1955 the Eisenhower Administration announced the US was planning to launch a satellite sometime between July 1957 and December 1958 in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year, which would end on December 31, 1958.
4. The Soviets, however, beat us to the punch, badly. On October 4, 1957 they launched a satellite named Sputnik. Most of us had absolutely no idea they were even close to launching a satellite. Sputnik completed 1,440 orbits before falling to the earth on January 4, 1958. The US was shocked and scared. We were supposed to be the technological geniuses, and they had beaten us badly. How badly? In November the Soviets successfully launched another satellite, Sputnik 2. This one carried a dog. Then, in April 1961 they put a human, Yuri Gagarin, in orbit. Where were we? Lagging severely.
5. After several embarrassing failures the US finally succeeded in putting a man into space. On July 21, 1961 Alan Shepard completed a suborbital flight. On February 20, 1962 John Glenn became the first American to actually orbit the earth.
6. The US space program got a huge boost with the election of JFK in 1960. He was a strong supporter of our space program and was determined to overtake the Soviets in space. On September 12, 1962 in Houston he declared the US would land a man on the moon and return him before the end of the decade. We would achieve this, he added, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Wow! Think about it. This was beyond ambitious. Many critics thought it was a foolhardy prediction. At the time, no one had the faintest idea of how to do it, or even if it were possible. The technology simply did not exist. Computers were in their infancy. Plus, the Soviets were way ahead of us.
7. Moreover, the next year JFK was assassinated, and the new Administration was bogged down in the Vietnam War, which was costing a ton of money and fracturing the country. It didn’t look good.
8. But, somehow, we persevered, and on July 20, 1969 the big day had arrived. Apollo 11, which had been launched on July 16, 1969 had reached the moon. Apollo 11 was the fifth manned mission in the Apollo program.
9. Neil Armstrong was the first to actually walk on the moon. Crewmember Buzz Aldrin was next. Michael Collins remained in the vehicle. The space race was effectively over. The US had won. It had answered JFK’s challenge.
Armstrong’s moonwalk was telecast worldwide and watched by hundreds of millions of people. At 4:17 pm on July 20 Armstrong uttered the famous sentence: “The Eagle has landed.” Many people, including my wife and I, were glued to the tv for the historic occasion.
At 10:56 pm, upon setting foot on the moon, Armstrong uttered the famous words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Truer words were never spoken.
The crew returned safely to earth on July 24. The spacecraft landed in the Pacific Ocean where the three heroes were retrieved amid much fanfare.
Soon, ten more Americans would walk on the moon. No Russians ever did. In fact, the Soviet Union, itself, would soon be no more. We not only won the race to the moon but the Cold War as well. Is this a great country, or what?