Growing up with the space program

Published 4:37 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2019

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I never was scientifically minded, or talented, but that doesn’t mean science hasn’t fascinated me. And nothing has fascinated my generation more than the exploration of space. The space program took America to new heights and became an extension of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

We were horrified in October 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik. The darned Russians had beaten us into space. How could that have happened?

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I was 11 when Sputnik was sent aloft. It was a time of very real fear that the two post-World War II giants, the Russians and Americans, would end up blowing up the world, and Sputnik made it seem even more real to kids of our day. I don’t remember where I was when I learned of Sputnik, but it made an impression — a big one.

Then, they did it again. On April 12, 1961, the Russians rubbed our face in it by launching Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, the first man to travel the outer fringes of our planet’s atmosphere.

And because of the national embarrassment caused by those two events and, frankly, our fear that at some point the so-called Cold War might heat up into something far worse, we watched the exploration of space with great interest. I would suspect that just about anyone my age remembers where they were during at least one of the major space “events” of our you.

An example: A month after Gagarin was launched into history, Americans — kids, adults, everyone — listened on radios as Alan Shepard took a suborbital ride in a Mercury capsule and Uncle Sam declared we were in it to win. I was doing chores in the yard when Shepard was launched and listened to the event on an old AM transistor radio that was my constant companion.

Five months later, the U.S. fully entered the fray, sending John Glenn on three orbits around the earth in a Mercury capsule. That was a weekday, but I recall watching a recap of the flight on an old console TV soon after.

Anyone who thought the space race was anything short of a battle of Titans wasn’t paying attention. We all knew it, or at least sensed it. The winner in space would ultimately be the Cold War victor, and we dearly hoped it would be us.

President John F. Kennedy didn’t mention the Russians when he gave his famous Rice University speech in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962. He didn’t need to.

“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 … and we intend to win.”

NASA accepted the challenge, as did American taxpayers, and the race was on.

Not that it was easy, and the cost was staggering, not just in dollars, but occasionally in human terms. On July 27, 196 7 Apollo I, the first in the line of spacecraft that would take us to the moon, exploded in flame during a training exercise at Cape Kennedy, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. It shocked the nation and set the program back — but not for long.

In less than a year, a remarkable series of space launches took manned vehicles into the beginning stages of a moon landing.

And then, on July 20, 1969 — 50 years ago next week — Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took that “giant leap for mankind.”

Anne and I were sitting in an un-air-conditioned apartment in Northern Virginia, together with my sister Betty, who was visiting. A 12-inch black and white television with built-in rabbit ears delivered a wavy and grainy picture, but it was all we needed to experience history.

There were other moments, including the safe landing of the crippled Apollo 13 (the admiral I worked for stopped work and invited the staff into his office to watch).

More tragedies were to come with the loss of Challenger and Columbia, but the glory days of the Apollo mission are most memorable, and it’s really hard to believe that it’s been a half century since then.