Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Apollo +50: The Space Race Begins

50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy started the space race.

First, I believe that 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 the earth.

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft.

We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior.

We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight.

But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Let's be honest. This was a proxy-war with the Soviet Union. In an age of intercontinental missiles and nuclear warheads, people were reluctant to enter into a genuine shooting war. The Bay of Pigs Invasion happened only 5 weeks earlier - on April 17th. Five days before that, the Soviet Union had put a man into space. It seemed as if America was weak - scientifically and militarily.

And these two elements - science and military - were not distinct. It is important to note that the space race used the most modern military technology - missiles and satellites for weather, communication, and observation. One of the fears of the 1960s was that the Soviet Union could control "the high ground" of space.

Space activists tend to ignore this historic context in order to portray space exploration as a peaceful project aiming at the exploration and development of space. They do not understand why the same motivation does not exist today and wonder about what inspire a new generation to the same ends.

As a proxy war, Kennedy needed to pick an end that would provide a genuine test of the country's abilities and will. Landing a person on the moon by the end of the decade had a lot in common with the earlier task of defeating Germany and Japan - and doing so by 1945.

Another part of the context that it is necessary to understand is that, by May 25th, 1961, the United States had a total of 15 minutes of flight experience on space missions - and about 5 minutes of experience in space itself. There had been one (1) sub-orbital flight. That was it. NASA was charged with going from launching one astronaut to an altitude of 100 miles and letting him fall back to Earth, to putting people on the moon and bringing them back to Earth, and it had 8 years to do it in.

As for the timeline, I find it interesting to note that, while the decade did not actually end until 1970, the goal of landing on the moon by the end of the decade took 1969 as its objective. This meant that the goal was to put a man on the moon and return him in 8.5 years - not in 10 years.

They would accomplish it in a little over 8 years.

So, on May 25th, Kennedy declared a proxy-war against the Soviet Union. Now, the challenge would be to see if we could win the war. It would take an investment in national effort, development, and technology that would be the rival of many violent conflicts. However, all things considered, it would prove to be far less costly - and far less destructive - than the alternative.

That depends, of course, on whether the American people were up to the challenge.

No comments: