The Venture Into The Vastness Of Space
The story of how humanity first managed to break free of its cradle, earth, and venture into the vastness of space begins, appropriately enough, with an international conference. Convened in Rome in October of 1954 to plan the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, the gathering of scientists from forty different countries resulted in a far-ranging plan of experiments and exploration in disciplines as varied as physics, geology, meteorology, and aerospace. Of all the ambitious objectives the participants sought to undertake, the most novel was the plan to launch a small satellite into earth orbit.
A modest goal by modern standards, the plan to send a basketball-sized probe containing few (if any) scientific instruments into orbit around the earth seemed a fantastic notion to the average American when it was formally introduced in July 1955. As a result of the Rome conference and in cooperation with other countries, the U.S. government announced its intent to play the leading role in the satellite launch.
Following a familiar pattern, the government of the Soviet Union also announced a plan to send a satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year. The American move was both strategic and tactical, and its aims were political as well as scientific. Far beyond the obvious benefits to space science that would result from the development of the equipment, systems, and procedures necessary to create and launch the satellite, the U.S. effort was also calculated as a means to outpace the USSR's increasingly optimistic pronouncements about the progress of its own space plans. Thus the seeds of the space race, as it would become known in earnest within the next decade, were sown in the mid-1950s.
Beginning in the late 1950s, space would become another dramatic arena for this competition, as each side sought to prove the superiority of its technology, its military firepower and–by extension–its political-economic system. By the mid-1950s, the U.S.-Soviet Cold War had worked its way into the fabric of everyday life in both countries, fueled by the arms race and the growing threat of nuclear weapons, wide-ranging espionage and counter-espionage between the two countries, war in Korea and a clash of words and ideas carried out in the media. These tensions would continue throughout the space race, exacerbated by such events as the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the outbreak of war in Southeast Asia.
For both the United States and the USSR, the first fruits of the Allied victory in World War II included a generous portion of German rocket technology, as well as many of the scientists and technicians who had developed it. Of particular interest to both sides was the German V-2 rocket; many of the Soviets' earliest steps toward space were based on further development of the basic V-2, and the United States began firing captured V-2s as well as American-made counterparts in White Sands, New Mexico, in 1946.
The Soviets incorporated many German technicians into their rocket development efforts immediately after the war, gaining the benefit of their expertise and then gradually allowing them to return to Germany in the early 1950s. But, fearing Soviet retribution for Hitler's savage Russian campaigns, a large majority of the most sought-after German scientists surrendered to the Western Allies at the end of the war. As a result, the United States received the lion's share of V-2 rocket expertise, including the skills of pioneering space scientists Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun.
Given the political and social climate of the day, with the former allies sliding precariously into the first decade of the nuclear age and the initial years of the cold war, it seems inevitable - and in many ways beneficial - that the United States and USSR would embark on a decade-long competition to send first satellites, then human beings, into orbit and eventually to the moon. The two nations' race to develop their space programs coincided with the initial stage of their harrowing development of vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Locked into an arms race that by its nature provided no hope of victory but at the same time gave neither side any practical way to withdraw, America and the Soviet Union feverishly pursued the benefits of propaganda and prestige that early hegemony in space could provide.
From the beginning, the contest of technologies and engineering skills reflected the central tenets of each nation's belief system. Superiority in the space race was increasingly seen as a validation of national pride and the preeminence of one way of life over the other. And even as the cold war ground on, with its intransigent nuclear adversaries a world apart in ideology as well as geography, humanity's shared preoccupation with space offered a proving ground for the first great superpowers that reduced their potential for fatal miscalculation more than any comparable earthbound alternative.
On October 4, 1957, 10:28 p.m. Moscow time, the USSR launched the Sputnik 1 (Russian for "traveler") satellite from a site in Tyuratam, in Soviet Central Asia. A simple device, an aluminum sphere with four antennas and a radio transmitter, Sputnik 1 was the first human-made object to orbit the earth. The space age had begun.
With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, the conquest of space began. It completed an orbit in ninety-six minutes at a speed of around seventeen miles per hour. In addition, it sent back information on the earth's upper atmosphere. It was a stunning achievement, and for a time the USSR threatened to have a man in space before America had launched its first satellite.
Sputnik 2 launched barely a month later, carrying the first living creature in space, a dog named Laika. There was no capacity for returning Laika to earth, and temperature and humidity increased steadily as the satellite completed its orbits. By the fourth orbit, Laika was dead; the craft burned up in the atmosphere five months later.
America's first response was a U.S. Navy satellite. In front of an audience of millions, it flamed out on the launching pad. The army took over and successfully launched a small satellite named Explorer 1 in January 1958. It discovered the Van Allen belts, bands of radiaÃ‚tion that surround the earth. The "space race" had begun, and SputÃ‚nik 3 launched as early as May 1958. It was a hundred times heavier than Explorer 1, and the Soviets were clearly ahead.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created as a single-purpose organization in 1958. There would be no more interservice rivalry. NASA's mission was to take on the Soviet programs and beat them. By early 1959, one-man capsules were be-ing designed and seven astronauts were chosen. At the same time satellite launches continued, so that by 1960 America had launched eighteen and all three Sputniks had been destroyed as their orbits degraded and they reentered atmosphere. For a short window of time, space was solely American. But the Soviet launches had stopped for a reason. They had set their sights on the moon.
The moon travels in an ellipse around the earth, and the distance between them varies from around 225,000 miles to over 250,000. America's first attempts to reach it showed the magnitude of the task. In August 1958, Able 1 blew up while still in earth's atmosphere. In October, Pioneer 1 reached a third of the way to the moon before falling back and burning up. The sheer pace of these launches seems incredible even today. The Sputnik program had rocked America. National pride was at stake, and it took another dent when the Rus-sians successfully launched Lunik 1 in January 1959. It reached within 5,000 miles of the moon.
The U.S. Pioneer 4 was more successful, but then the stakes were raised again. In September 1959 the Soviet Lunik 2 sent back photographs of the hidden side of the moon. Only a month later, Lunik 3 successfully crash-landed on the surface, another astonish-ing first.
In 1960 the Apollo program was conceived with the intention of landing a man on the moon and successfully returning to earth. At the same time, the Soviet Union was training twelve cosmonauts in the race to be first. President Kennedy in America and President Khrushchev in the USSR were both committed to the task. There were no constraints on budget, only on time.
Few Americans, in Congress, the media, the general public, or even within NASA itself, have ever had as broad an understanding of the importance of space exploration to the daily activities of the nation as President Kennedy. He championed the space effort as an idealistic, noble endeavor of human adventure, with its wisdom self-evident, its necessity self-sustaining.
He also understood the practical threat that the Soviet space advantage posed to the delicate global political landscape of the early 1960s. At the height of the cold war, struggling to convince uncommitted nations of the efficacy of their particular system of government and way of life, the United States and USSR both sought to validate their claims of technical, political, and social preeminence by developing a superior space program. But while Khrushchev used the Soviet achievements as a bludgeon, Kennedy defined the American space agenda as something larger and more important than merely an easy source of propaganda or rhetoric.
Framing the task as a great adventure on an ultimate frontier, Kennedy saw the daunting cost and required technical expertise as an opportunity to bridge some of the distances between nations here on earth. Late in 1959 he expressed his preference that the effort be "placed on an international footing as soon as possible," with U.S. allies playing a significant role; despite the climate of the times, he even publicly entertained the idea of a joint effort with the Soviets. He elegantly expressed that possibility in his 1961 inaugural address: "Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars."' Given their leadership position, however, the Soviets had little incentive to pursue the idea. In fact, Khrushchev had vastly different plans in mind to celebrate the next great step forward in space exploration.
Both countries had shown that they could physically reach the moon. The two main problems remaining were engineering a "soft landing" on the surface and the even more dangerous reentry to the earth's atmosphere. Depending on where you're standing, the earth spins at around a thousand miles per hour. The friction involved in reentering that atmosphere is immense and leads to temperatures of 2,700Ã‚-° F, just under the melting temperature of iron. It was an era of startlingly new and astonishing challenges for mankind.
Yury Gagarin was a Russian air force pilot who had retrained as a cosmonaut. On April 12,1961, he reached space in a Vostok three-stage launch rocket. With parachutes, he and his capsule landed sepÃ‚arately but safely in Russian farmland. As he walked across the fields in his orange jumpsuit, a little girl asked him if he had come from space. "I certainly have," he replied, smiling.
When he heard, the delighted Soviet premier Khrushchev said publicly: "Let the capitalist countries try to catch up." Less than a month later, Alan Shepard was the first American in space, reaching a height of 116 miles before returning. He too landed safely, and on May 25, President Kennedy gave what may be his most famous speech, saying: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landÃ‚ing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." Never before or since has a president staked his nation's pride on so clear an objective. The Soviet Union had put the first man in space. Now it was the moon or bust.
In February 1962, American John Glenn completed successful orbits in his Friendship 7 capsule. In the same year Soviet cosmonauts spent four days in space before returning. The Apollo program kicked into high gear with a two-module spacecraft system, consisting of a command/service model that could orbit around the moon and a luÃ‚nar module that could land on the surface. A three-man crew was necessary, as two men would descend to the surface and one man remain behind in the command module.
America launched a series of Gemini test flights, so named be-cause it held two astronauts. The Soviet Union responded in 1963 by putting the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova. It was another propaganda triumph for the Soviet regime.
President John F. Kennedy made the bold, public claim that the U.S. would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. By the end of 1962, the foundations of NASA's lunar landing program--dubbed Project Apollo--were in place.
From 1961 to 1964, NASA's budget was increased almost 500 percent, and the lunar landing program eventually involved some 34,000 NASA employees and 375,000 employees of industrial and university contractors. Apollo suffered a setback in January 1967, when three astronauts were killed after their spacecraft caught fire during a launch simulation. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union's lunar landing program proceeded tentatively, partly due to internal debate over its necessity and to the untimely death (in January 1966) of Sergey Korolyov, chief engineer of the Soviet space program.
December 1968 saw the launch of Apollo 8, the first manned space mission to orbit the moon, from NASA's massive launch facility on Merritt Island, near Cape Canaveral, Florida. On July 16, 1969, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins set off on the Apollo 11 space mission, the first lunar landing attempt. After landing successfully on July 20, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon's surface.
By landing on the moon, the United States effectively "won" the space race that had begun with Sputnik's launch in 1957. For their part, the Soviets made four failed attempts to launch a lunar landing craft between 1969 and 1972, including a spectacular launch-pad explosion in July 1969. From beginning to end, the American public's attention was captivated by the space race, and the various developments by the Soviet and U.S. space programs were heavily covered in the national media. This frenzy of interest was further encouraged by the new medium of television. Astronauts came to be seen as the ultimate American heroes, and earth-bound men and women seemed to enjoy living vicariously through them. Soviets, in turn, were pictured as the ultimate villains, with their massive, relentless efforts to surpass America and prove the power of the communist system.
With the conclusion of the space race, U.S. government interest in lunar missions waned after the early 1970s. In 1975, the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission sent three U.S. astronauts into space aboard an Apollo spacecraft that docked in orbit with a Soviet-made Soyuz vehicle. When the commanders of the two crafts officially greeted each other, their "handshake in space" served to symbolize the gradual improvement of U.S.-Soviet relations in the late Cold War-era.
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