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Genius, Grit Carried American Flag to the Moon

nasa and the kennedy space center at cape canaveral florida

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Monday, 22 October 2018 10:51 AM Current | Bio | Archive

The recently released "First Man" movie script obfuscates the historical space race context, audaciously bold goals, and astonishingly rapid achievements of America’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

Above all, this was a U.S.-Russia Cold War space race.

America’s psyche had been badly jolted by shock waves beginning on Oct. 4, 1957, when a tiny Soviet satellite chirped alarming evidence of technological superiority. Then, three and one half years later, on April 12, 1961, a young cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin leant his human face to a new extraterrestrial space era that threatened to leave the U.S. behind.

That wasn’t the only humiliation facing President John Kennedy’s administration at the time. A Cuban Bay of Pigs debacle had just occurred in mid-April.

The particularly unfortunate timing of these two events put great pressure on Kennedy to demonstrate resolute leadership. On May 25, 1961, only a few weeks after Gagarin’s orbital flight, he upped the ante, committing the U.S. to send a man to the moon and to return him safely before the end of that decade.

Kennedy rallied the country to that cause, saying, ". . . 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...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."

And the remarkable clincher, "Let it be clear — and this is a judgment which the members of the Congress must finally make — let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs . . . If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all."

Kennedy repeated his commitment at Rice University’s stadium in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962, stating, "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 the goal will serve to organize 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."

The president clarified that this was to be a competitive race dedicated to demonstrating U.S. technical supremacy over the Russians. He said, "Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the Earth. Some 40 of them were made in the United States of America and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union." 

America resolve and ingenuity not only fulfilled Kennedy’s decadal commitment, but did even better.... putting four of our citizens on the lunar surface and returning them by 1969, plus delivered two more into lunar orbit who returned with them.

Within three more years, eight others had walked on the Moon on successful round-trip voyages, along with four more orbital companions. Some of those same Apollo astronauts, and many daring predecessors, literally blazed that pathway. They flew on two suborbital and four Earth-orbital Mercury launches, nine Earth-orbital Gemini flights, two Earth-orbital Apollo tests, and two lunar-orbital tests that made those lunar surface landings possible.

It took an enormous amount of courage and technical competence for our nation to make good on that challenge. As NASA Johnson Space Center Chief Engineer, Max Faget, later recounted, "We didn’t know what kind of Moon we were going to land on. We didn’t know what the radiation environment would be like on the Moon. Just a whole host of things like that we didn’t really know. And we had to move ahead anyway."

Perhaps also remember that the most powerful computers at that time had far less processing capacity than we now take for granted in our smartphones and digital gaming apps.

Neil and Buzz each told me that they had assessed their chances of success at about 50-50. Nevertheless, every other of their astronaut colleagues would have considered themselves fortunate to have that opportunity.

Those eternal first imprints left by Neil and Buzz — indeed small steps for man and a giant American leap for mankind — remain immortalized as tributes to a competitive spirit that breeds exceptionalism. They, along with those thousands of others who provided the roadmaps and means, inspire us to realize that with courage, dedication and education, worthwhile, ambitious dreams simply await action.

Let their examples and lessons never be forgotten.

Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of several books, including “Thinking Whole: Rejecting Half-Witted Left & Right Brain Limitations” (2018), “Reflections on Oceans and Puddles: One Hundred Reasons to be Enthusiastic, Grateful and Hopeful” (2017), “Cosmic Musings: Contemplating Life Beyond Self” (2016), and "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles."Click Here Now.

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LarryBell
Those eternal first imprints left by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, remain immortalized as tributes to a competitive spirit that breeds exceptionalism. They, along with those thousands of others who provided the road maps and means, inspire us.
aldrin, armstrong, faget, kennedy, nasa
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2018-51-22
Monday, 22 October 2018 10:51 AM
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