Fifty years into manned spaceflights, humanity's starship dreams sit waiting
With more terrestrial challenges absorbing our attention - global warming, the imminent milestone of seven billion people, energy crises and the constant glowering threat of extinction in one form or another – our romantic aspirations to “slip the surly bonds of Earth” seem tethered to the what-if realm of Hollywood special effects wizards. J BROOKS SPECTOR wistfully pages through the annals of the past 50 years of man’s great space adventure.
After Mercury Project astronaut John Glenn had successfully orbited the Earth on 20 February 1962, almost a year after Russia’s Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space, US president John Kennedy felt confident enough to challenge his country to take on the Russians in a race to the Moon.
As Kennedy told his Houston, Texas audience on 12 September 1962: “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask: Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?…
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too.”
Watch John Kennedy’s ‘We Choose to go to the Moon’ speech:
The year before, less than six months after he had become president, Kennedy had already told a joint session of Congress on 25 May 1961, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” With these speeches and all the science and engineering they eventually implied, we were officially off to the races.
A little more than a year before Kennedy’s speech in Houston, and just days before his congressional address, on 5 May 1961, in America’s first manned space launch, Alan B Shepard blasted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in his Mercury capsule atop the Redstone rocket. The flight lasted barely long enough to fit in-between the opening moments and the first commercial break of a half-hour television situation comedy. Nevertheless, Shepard’s journey reassured Americans they were back in the space race, after all those embarrassing failures of early satellite launches that had been aced out by Russia’s first Sputnik and its distinctive beep-beep-beep, and then even more disturbingly by Yuri Gagarin’s epochal voyage.
All of this came at the apogee of the Soviet-American cold war. Kennedy himself had run on a campaign platform to “get America moving again” and to end that dreaded arms gap between the Russians and Americans, which, thanks to Eisenhower's U2 spy programme, turned out to be a Soviet hoax. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted just weeks after Kennedy’s Houston speech and the two nations had already faced the possibility of a nuclear conflict over Berlin. Vietnam was a small distant cloud, but it would eventually come to overwhelm almost everything else for Americans in less than five years. School children were still practicing those “duck and cover” drills under their classroom desks in the event of a nuclear attack.
Photo: Alan Shepard during Freedom 7 flight on May 5, 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)
For Shepard’s short journey, like millions of other school children across America, I watched the live television feed from Florida on a small black-and-white television set usually reserved for really boring educational TV programmes about the mysteries of fractions, the dissections of frogs or the peculiarities of English grammar, as we worried about what would happen to this brave man, a man who clearly had that “right stuff” to challenge the Soviets for control of space. Never mind that it was a sub-orbital flight that barely went beyond Cuba.
Looking back from 50 years later, it remains an astonishing moment. There we were at the actual beginning of the age of space travel. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, James Blish, Damon Knight, Theodore Sturgeon, Poul Anderson, and Lester del Rey - and on back to Philip Francis Nowlan (Buck Rogers’ creator), Edgar Rice Burroughs (the creator of John Carter, the Martian explorer), H G Wells and Jules Verne – were right after all. It was happening now, live, on our television screens.
Years later during a family visit to Florida, we took the official tour of Cape Canaveral. The tour bus drove us past the massive launching pad for Space Shuttle flights, past abandoned gantry cranes and launch sites from earlier space programmes that now served as home to egrets and cranes - and more than a few alligators, it was rumoured. And then our bus stopped at the flight control centre from those early days, before command of civilian space flights shifted to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston.
To go into that small, cramped Mercury command centre was more than just a look back in time. It was like going back to the beginning, the first landing on a new continent, after months aboard ship, like getting a chance to tread the decks of Magellan or Columbus’ ships. And it was like peeling back the curtain for a moment of primeval wonder and innocence for those of us who had grown up with the race to the Moon.
But the look of the thing! It was so handmade, hand-wired and ad hoc-looking. The entire command centre had an order of magnitude less computing power that that of the computer this story is written on. Instead of all those ubiquitous electronic beeps, the winking LEDs and the giant flat-screen monitors covering a whole wall, the displays and controls in this blockhouse had dials and readouts on gun metal grey and green-painted consoles that didn’t look all that much different from the dashboard of old long-distance bus. There were little radar displays that looked as if they might have been recycled from the conning tower of a World War II submarine.
In the eye of memory one could evoke the very scenes from the early Mercury launches where the men (always men in those days) - with their buzz-cut hairstyles, bulky headphones, white, short sleeve shirts, narrow ties and pocket protectors filled with colour pens - were using slide rules to do their rough calculations. Slide rules! Those men were the grown-up versions of those high school math whizzes who believed physics problems were fun; the adult versions of your high school’s math Olympics team.
Photo: The Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, carrying astronaut John Glenn, was launched on an Atlas rocket. (Wikimedia Commons)
The people behind the engineers in the command centre were German engineers and scientists brought to America under the leadership of Werhner von Braun after World War II as prize booty after the collapse of Germany. (To look at a picture of an Atlas Rocket and a V-2 is to see the family resemblance.) Never mind all that. The real explorers were the seven men in the original Mercury Project, and then the ones who came afterwards in the Gemini and Apollo programmes as well. They were Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton
These men were selected from among hundreds of test pilots and fighter pilots, each desperate to be a part of history. No, to be the first in line to make history, nosing out all the others. Remember Will Smith’s character in the film “Independence Day” – the hard-arsed, tough-as-nails fighter jock desperate to be accepted by Nasa.
That’s the very description of the men who vied to become astronauts; to be the men who would fly into space, then walk in space and then walk on the actual surface of the Moon – just like Buzz Lightyear’s cartoon rallying cry, “To infinity and beyond!” They had their own special swagger and an accent from the hill country of West Virginia, picked up from the fearsome fighter and test pilot, Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier, but who never became an astronaut.
Photo: Apollo 13's damaged Service Module, as photographed from the Command Module after being jettisoned. (Wikimedia Commons)
Years later, I had opportunities to meet actual astronauts who were pilots and mission science specialists aboard one of the Space Shuttle flights or on the International Space Station. They were solid, unassuming men and women – smart, thoughtful people who understood that their chosen career path had both immense personal rewards and real, life-threatening dangers. But to the more general public, this wasn’t exactly the soaring adventure we had dreamt of all those decades before.
Yes, by now we have all marvelled at those extraordinary Hubble Telescope pictures of distant nebulae and galaxies that speak to the wonder and glory of the universe in a way classic science fiction never quite managed. But the Hubble pictures also seemed to make human explorers more marginal to the whole enterprise, even if men had had to fix the mistakes in the telescope that men had made in constructing it in the first place. Think, now, when was the last time a space voyage actually made you hold your breath? If you were alive at the time, perhaps it was the near-doomed Apollo 13 voyage that the commander of that journey, James Lovell, called “Lost Moon” in his memoir of that trip that had circled, but never landed on the Moon. More recently, what with the seeming routine of the International Space Station and the Shuttles, even those of us who continue to pay attention to the space programme probably think of it more as the space-borne equivalent of long-haul trucking to deliver goods to an isolated city.
Photo: Ill-fated Apollo-1 crew, which perished in fire on 27 January 1967. From left to right: Grissom, White, Chaffee. (Wikimedia Commons)
Fifty years after humans began their first steps on the journey into space, we have left some derelict lunar rovers on the Moon and a laser reflector, we’ve populated the sky with satellites essential for everyday communications and weather forecasting on Earth and have established a functioning space station. But that was something that was supposed to have been the starting point for the colonisation of the Moon and the first voyages to Mars and beyond, if Stanley Kubrick’s vision in “Space Odyssey: 2001” had been right.
But the budget crunch has taken hold of space instead. The Russians cover their costs by renting out seats on their space launches to rich businessmen or extreme sports “explorers”, while the American Congress now asks about the cost-benefit ratio of a constantly shrinking Nasa budget for scientific discovery versus keeping up the funding for Medicare – or paying for another war in South Asia or the Middle East.
Will we ever again “boldly go where no man has gone before”, or will we rely, instead, on robotic craft that give us the computer game equivalent of exploration instead? Isaac Newton famously said that, “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Fifty years from now, will our descendents be asking about whether we shall go further than 200km beyond Earth’s surface? Of course, maybe we really are on the verge of a new space race, but just don’t know it yet. This time will it be one where a Chinese space traveller steps out onto the red, sandy Martian landscape to say “Xing hui!” - followed by the Mandarin equivalent of “We come in peace for all mankind”? DM
For more, read:
- Kennedy’s Space Race Speech on “We choose to go to the Moon” in Wordpress;
- Project Mercury on Wikipedia;
- Project Mercury on the Nasa website;
- Project Mercury Overview on a related Nasa website;
- Alan Shepard's Space Race: Soviet Victory Frustrated First American in Space on Space.com;
- Alan Shepard in TheSpaceRace.com;
- “The Right Stuff” film in Wikipedia;
- “The Right Stuff” novel website on Wikipedia;
- Nasa’s History on its official website;
- And, of course, don’t miss the official website of the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution;
Main photo: The Mercury Seven: Back row: Shepard, Grissom, Cooper; front row: Schirra, Slayton, Glenn, Carpenter in 1960.