Friday, November 19, 2010

The Space Race

 That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, 
on becoming the first human
to step foot on the moon, July 20, 1969.

First Steps: Neil Armstrong descending the ladder on the lunar module on July 20, 1969. Polaroid image of slow scan television monitor at Goldstone Station. NASA image S69-42583. Photo Credit: NASA

When I was a child growing up in the 1960s, the space race between Russia and the United States captured our attention, even here in Canada, watching with fascination which of the two superpowers would be the first to land a manned craft on the moon.

The United States won that boasting right, so to speak, when the Eagle lunar module, piloted by its commander, Neil Armstrong,  touched down on the moon's surface on July 20, 1969 at 4:17 pm EDT. (I had raced home from a picnic outing with my parents, with only a few minutes to spare, to see it all on my black-and-white television. The prospect of missing such a momentous event would have been disheartening.)

Six hours later, with my whole family watching, at 10:56 pm EDT, Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. Buzz Aldrin followed 15 minutes later. That event was viewed by an estimated 450 million people, then about 15 per cent of the world's population.

There was excitement at this event, a feeling that something positive and noteworthy was taking place. And, yes, the astronauts were our heroes. As were the cosmonauts in the former Soviet Union for their citizens. This was a contest of scientific and technological achievement for both nations. And both nations accomplished great achievements.

For example, the Soviet Union was first in space and did in fact land unmanned craft on the moon, collecting scientific data. It also had many other firsts in space, including the first probe to impact the moon and the first women in space, fine and notable achievements.

As for the American Apollo 11 mission, after landing and setting foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong went for a walk to an area called East Crater, 60 metres east of the lunar module. At that point, he did something in recognition of both nation' quest to conquer space:
Armstrong's final task was to leave a small package of memorial items [dedicated] to deceased Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Vladimir Komarov, and Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. The time spent on EVA during Apollo 11 was about two-and-a-half hours, the shortest of any of the six Apollo lunar landing missions.
As indicated above, the U.S. was not the first nation to launch a unmanned satellite into space. That honour belongs to the Soviet Unions, which launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957. It was launched into an elliptical low earth orbit, and was the first in a series of satellites collectively known as the Sputnik program. The unanticipated announcement of Sputnik 1's success launched the Space Race within the Cold War. The launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age.

Things heated up. When the Soviet Union launched its Vostok 3KA spacecraft on April 12, 1961, with Yuri Gagarin aboard, excitement grew. The Vostok 1 mission was the first manned flight into space, and the first orbital flight of an manned vehicle. The first American in space was Alan B Shepard, Jr., who piloted a Mercury spacecraft named Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. The sub-orbital flight, which lasted 15 minutes, attained an altitude of about 187 kilometres.

The event is referenced as a turning point in a speech that U.S. President John F. Kennedy made to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961:
It is a most important decision that we make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.

I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful inter-agency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further—unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.

Apollo 11 Crew:. (L to R): Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.
Photo Credit: NASA
Two years later, President Kennedy made an address before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations in  New York on September 20, 1963, in which he emphasized the quest for space was also a quest for peace and co-operation between the Soviet Union and the United States: 
All these and other new steps toward peaceful cooperation may be possible. Most of them will require on our part full consultation with our allies—for their interests are as much involved as our own, and we will not make an agreement at their expense. Most of them will require long and careful negotiation. And most of them will require a new approach to the cold war—a desire not to "bury" one's adversary, but to compete in a host of peaceful arenas, in ideas, in production, and ultimately in service to all mankind.
The contest will continue—the contest between those who see a monolithic world and those who believe in diversity—but it should be a contest in leadership and responsibility instead of destruction, a contest in achievement instead of intimidation. Speaking for the United States of America, I welcome such a contest. For we believe that truth is stronger than error--and that freedom is more enduring than coercion. And in the contest for a better life, all the world can be a winner.
The effort to improve the conditions of man, however, is not a task for the few. It is the task of all nations—acting alone, acting in groups, acting in the United Nations, for plague and pestilence, and plunder and pollution, the hazards of nature, and the hunger of children are the foes of every nation. The earth, the sea, and the air are the concern of every nation. And science, technology, and education can be the ally of every nation.
President's Kennedy's offer was rebuffed by Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. Two months later, another seminal moment took place, and President Kennedy was assassinated. His death was felt beyond the immediate confines of his family and the nation that he artfully led. With the passing of President Kennedy, the hopes and dreams of a nation began to fade, and along with it its innocence.

It's true that the Americans eventually won the Space Race to the moon on that memorable day on Sunday July 20, 1969. It's also true that it was highly exciting to see all of it unfold with my youthful eyes. I wrote to NASA and received a package of photos, including autographed photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts and the gray grainy  shots of the lunar surface. And I followed subsequent missions, only losing interest after the excitement of space discovery died down, and other interests overtook my life.

But, now many decades later, I realize what could have been (avoided), if the two nations would have co-operated, as they eventually did, and do now. It might have been a victory for all humanity.