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Published: 9/23/2007

Space race spurred American confidence

HARRISON Schmitt remembers exactly where he was on Oct. 4, 1957. A Fulbright scholar living with a farm family, he was examining the rocks of western Norway. He had turned on the radio to listen to a jazz show on Voice of America and was stunned, he recalled the other day, by the news report that preceded the music: The Soviet Union had launched a satellite into space.

That news jolted Mr. Schmitt, who later became an Apollo astronaut and a Republican senator, and it jolted America, which thought it possessed a monopoly on technological progress and, what is more important, the adventurous spirit.

That news changed Mr. Schmitt's life and, regardless of your age - whether precocious boomer reared on Project Mercury and Project Gemini, or senior citizen moved by the reading of Genesis by the crew of Apollo 8 in lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968, or young person marked by the twin tragedies of Challenger and Columbia - it changed your life too.

Indeed, almost nothing the Soviet Union did in its three-quarters of a century of life, with the possible exception of helping to defeat Germany once the two nations became enemies in 1941, had quite so profound an effect as the launching of Sputnik and, four years later, the launching of Yuri Gagarin into space on Vostok 1.

We're now approaching the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Space Age from a remote outpost on the Kazakh steppes. In that half-century the wondrous has become ponderous, the remarkable has become routine. Men and women go into space and we no longer cancel classes in schools so students can watch the lift-off on a bulky television set resting on an iron platform with little wheels at the bottom. Mr. Schmitt has walked on the moon. The words "satellite" and "radio" now are combined to mean that you can listen to your favorite football team play anywhere in the world.

Talk about transforming the miraculous into the mundane.

But now, as we near that 50th anniversary, it is worthwhile to pause and remember how uncomfortable it was for Americans to sleep, as the phrase had it, under a Russian moon. This was in some ways more shattering than the news, eight years earlier, that the Soviets had exploded its first nuclear weapon, ending the American atomic monopoly. President Truman's statement that day said, "The eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected," but everyone knew we got there first. The eventual launch of satellites into space was to be expected too, but not by someone else first.

It didn't help, either, that Sputnik 1 was followed swiftly by Sputnik 2, with Laika, the space dog, on board. "Many of the World War II generation claimed that this was worse than Pearl Harbor because the two Sputnik launches occurred within a month; there was only one Pearl Harbor," wrote John Graham, a former officer with the Air Force Space Command and the author of five books on the subject.

Then came the mortifying dud of the Vanguard space mission, where an American booster burped on the Cape Canaveral launch pad and then exploded into flames as the whole world watched. When a series of British ships were exploded at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, a rear admiral said, "There's something wrong with our bloody ships today." You could almost hear the echoes in 1957.

America finally did get into space, of course. The first American satellite was ridiculed by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev as a "grapefruit," and, as Tom Wolfe later put it, "Khrushchev became the wicked master of mocking the United States for its incompetence."

But not for long. Sober Americans were talking about sending men aloft and then, in one of the few memorable events ever to occur in Rice Stadium in Houston, President John F. Kennedy made a remarkable statement - and vow: "Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it - we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon, and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. Yet the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we in this nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first."

First - to the moon. It was one of history's great ironies that the American conquest of the moon would come in the presidency of Kennedy's great rival, Richard Nixon - and that perhaps Nixon's greatest speech, fortunately never delivered, was the one drafted for him by William Safire (with a line cribbed from Rupert Brooke's great 1914 poem The Soldier) in the event that the lunar explorers perished before they returned to the safety of Earth. It was to have begun, and surely this is Mr. Safire's best line ever: "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace."

Americans were first on the moon, but the boost came not only from a Saturn 5 rocket. It came also from a Soviet satellite. "When they beat us into space it was a great jolt to our psyche - and it hurt our argument that communism was not the wave of the future," John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, said in a conversation the other afternoon. "All of a sudden a lot of Americans had a lot of doubts."

That was a big part of the cultural role of Sputnik, for Americans at least. The important thing isn't that America prevailed in the race to the moon. It is that America conquered its doubts.



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