This year marks the 60th anniversary of America’s first Earth satellite.
The whole thing was odd. Movies and TV shows of the ’50s kept promising that we’d “soon” reach the Moon. Yet the president, Eisenhower, was totally indifferent to the idea of satellites and especially manned space travel, and budgeted exactly nothing toward it. Even when it was clear that the US could launch a satellite ahead of the Russians if we greenlighted the Alabama team headed by the Nazi-morphed-into-American rocket designer Werner von Braun, Eisenhower showed no interest until after Sputnik went aloft in 1957.
In that time of bobby-sox and Elvis and American economic dominance, everyone so assumed the US would create the first satellite that it was nationally traumatic to watch the Russian “star” glide overhead. It was also worrisome. If they could send a craft over our homes, they could as easily deliver H-Bombs to Albany. Few realized that Sputnik was less than two feet wide – far too tiny to be seen by the naked eye – and that the slow-moving dot was merely the third-stage rocket booster that had gone into orbit alongside it. No matter; it wasn’t good.
That Cyrillic call-to-arms led immediately to the formation of NASA and the creation of Project Mercury, where truly brave test pilots sat inside claustrophobic modules atop dangerous Redstone rockets that burned alcohol sprayed into liquid oxygen. It was only when the next president, Kennedy, saw the wild public acclaim over Alan Shepherd’s brief 1961 suborbital flight that he fully decided to race the Russians.
His “go to the Moon before the decade is out” speech is now famous, and Kennedy is widely regarded as the visionary responsible for pulling off America’s finest achievement. But actually, he chose the Moon simply because it was the only arena where we could possibly win. The Russkies had already achieved the first orbiting satellite, the first animal in orbit, the first human, the first woman and the first craft to photograph the Moon’s far side. Actually landing on the Moon was the only thing left for us to try.
Today, when presidential prognostications carry about the same weight as those of Punxsutawney Phil, it’s hard to know whether most people truly believed Kennedy’s plan would really succeed in beating the Russians in the space race. But it was a more innocent time, when astronauts could die in a test-launch explosion and the project wouldn’t get bogged down for years in endless Congressional investigations. It was a time when the 12 men who walked the Moon did not automatically appear on late-night TV, when labels like “Snoopy” were affixed to craft, when the whole world was cheering us on.
Of course, politicians were politicians, then as now. Richard Nixon, who inherited the Apollo project, made sure that his name appeared on every one of the plaques left behind on the Moon, and his signature as well. These will remain legible for a half-billion years, and easily survive the human race. When the first astronauts stepped upon the lunar soil, they had to stand and listen to Nixon’s rambling phone call to them, as he tried to equate in the public mind the grandeur of the Oval Office with the singular landscape of Tranquility.
The next topsy-turvy swing was the suddenness with which the public lost interest in Apollo. None of the final few missions to the Moon was carried by even a single TV station. This fickleness has caused many scientists today to wonder whether the Moon-redux planned by the current ill-informed president, and its consequent funding squeeze for unmanned probes and observatories, is a worthwhile enterprise. The betting is that future administrations will delay or cancel the Moon-return project no matter what. Many also suspect that China, flush with cash and a desire to impress, will be the ones who first fund astronauts to Mars, and that the initial meals on the Red Planet will more likely be chow fun than beef jerky.
But during this anniversary year, one thing is certain: The last chapter of our topsy-turvy love affair with space has yet to be written.