Tag Archives: Michael Collins

The Space Race: to go boldly where no one has gone boldly before.

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Apollo 11 crew: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin. (Author: NASA; Source: here)

‘When the eagle landed on the moon, I was speechless overwhelmed, like most of the world. Couldn’t say a word. I think all I said was, “Wow! Jeez!” Not exactly immortal. Well, I was nothing if not human.’ Walter Cronkite, CBS anchor during the Moon landing in 1969

The Space Race: to go boldly where no one has gone boldly before.

In May, 1961, just after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba which had seen the humiliation of the USA’s attempts to oust Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, President of the USA, made a rather important announcement. He declared that, ‘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’. In doing this, Kennedy was taking a huge gamble because the USA was languishing far behind the USSR in the Space Race at the time, as it had done since 1957 and would do throughout nearly all of the 1960s. It is fair to say that the only part of the race which the USA did win was that last and most prestigious event of 20th July, 1969, when the news that, ‘The Eagle has landed’, was heard all over the earth. In his speech which was requesting funds for the project at the start of the decade, JFK firmly placed the ‘Space Race’ in the broader context of the Cold War. His speech was made just as Alan Shepherd had become the first US astronaut to go into space but this was a relatively short mission which fell well short of matching the feat of the Soviet Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who had orbited the earth in April of that same year. To quote Kennedy at some length, he said:

“If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will be our last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepherd, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

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.

It is a most important decision that we must make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.”

JFK later said, “…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 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 significance of the Cold War is clear in the language used here: the USA’s role as leader of the ‘free world’, the significance of the lead obtained by the USSR and the potential glamour from landing on the moon are some of the points to note. The Space Race of the sixties was played out against the backdrop of many important events and struggles including the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination, Khrushchev’s replacement by Leonid Brezhnev, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The Space Race was at the cutting edge of the ideological battle of the age and it was highly symbolic in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’,  as well as the battle for victory in terms of technological ability and individual courage. In this it was an essential part of ‘peaceful coexistence’, the new phase of the Cold War which had been initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956.

In a meaningful sense, the Space Race became a ‘live’ issue on 4th October, 1957. A rocket was launched from Kazakhstan in the USSR and sometime later a simple, ‘……beep……..beep………beep……’ was heard on radios across the world. ‘Sputnik’ (meaning ‘Travelling Companion’ or ‘Fellow Traveller’), had been launched, the first satellite, and it was orbiting the earth. The Soviet Union had taken the first step into space, developing rockets with power never considered possible before. Sputnik had a huge impact on the West, and the USA in particular, as Moscow and Communism seemed to be moving ahead of the West in leaps and bounds. A country which just thirty years earlier had effectively been a backward, peasant economy had gone into space ahead of the developed countries of the capitalist world and people were frightened of what the future might hold. If they had achieved such progress in three decades, and after suffering so badly in WWII, what might they achieve by the end of the century?  Amongst the leaders of Communism in Moscow and the other capitals of Eastern Europe, the experience of putting a satellite into space  gave a massive boost to confidence and self-belief. The belief that the USSR was moving ahead of the USA in technology and performance during the 1950s was picked up in the claim of a ‘missile gap’ in favour of the Communists, a key area of concern to both sides in considering the balance of power. As Khrushchev rejoiced in the success of Sputnik, dark clouds gathered around Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican President of the USA and serious questions began to be asked about his policies and his style.

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Sputnik – 1. If you see one today, it will be a copy as the original burnt up on 4th January, 1958, after travelling 60 million km in three months. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Following on from Sputnik, both sides tried to push forward with their rocket development and other aspects of the Space Race. At each point, the headlines went in favour of the Soviet Union. One particularly significant moment came with the USA’s attempt to respond to Sputnik by launching a tiny satellite on a Vanguard rocket in December, 1957. The cameras were present to record what was supposed to be the start of the USA’s fightback – but instead they filmed a humiliation. Shown live on TV, the rocket exploded on the launch pad, leading to one of the great headlines of the decade: ‘Oh, What a Flopnik’. Things looked bad and things were actually getting worse for the West thanks to a Russian dog – but better thanks to a former Nazi scientist.

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The explosion of the Vanguard TV3 in  December, 1957, was a source of great embarrassment in Washington. (Author: US Navy; Source: here)

In Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, was delighted by the success of Sputnik but he wanted something even more dramatic to mark the 40th anniversary of the ‘Russian Revolution’. The result of this was that the decision was taken to send a dog into space and so it was that ‘Laika’, a stray mongrel from the streets of Moscow, became famous around the globe. She was launched on Sputnik 2 on 3rd November, 1957. The power of the propaganda was more than enough to justify the decision, as it was an extraordinary sign of how far the USSR had come in four decades of Communist rule. Laika almost certainly died from overheating on the day of the launch, as there had been no food or drink in her capsule for several days. It was known that she would die anyway as the technology for re-entry had not been developed at that point. The purpose of the flight (and the subsequent tests on other animals) was to see if people could survive a launch and weightlessness as well as the impact on the body. In doing this, Laika was a ‘heroine’ who paved the way for many future developments. Maybe she would have been delighted to have found her face on a stamp and a statue made in her honour although she certainly suffered for those honours.

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Laika – the first dog in space. Rarely has such a cute looking mongrel dominated the news headlines around the world. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

In 1958, President Eisenhower took a momentous decision in an attempt to show the USA’s commitment to joining in the Space Race. He set up NASA, the ‘National Aeronautics and Space Administration’, which was charged with developing the research, technology, science and training needed to match the achievements of the Soviet programme. NASA would eventually succeed but in the early years, the USSR generally remained ahead of the Americans, as they put several more dogs into space. But the Americans did launch more powerful and reliable rockets, taking various monkeys into space in 1958 and 1959, the most famous of which was called Baker, who survived the flight, returned to earth and lived until 1984. If only he could have talked…

NASA actually had something to work with thanks largely to a man called Wernher von Braun (Full name Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun (1912-77), a man with the rare distinction of having the great satirist Tom Lehrer write a song about him.) Von Braun was born in a place called Wirsitz just before the Great war, a place which was then part of the German Empire but is today in Poland. Without going to a full explanation of what he did, von Braun became a rocket scientist who worked for the Nazis with his most famous work being the development of  the V-2 rockets, the world’s first ballistic missiles. Over 1400 were launched at Britain from Autumn 1944, and 500 hit London. The rockets weighed 13 tonnes and hit the ground at about 3000 mph, causing over 9000 deaths in the capital.  The worst strike came on 25th November when a V-2 hit a Woolworth’s store in New Cross, killing 168 people. The threat of the rockets was eventually neutralised as the Allies over-ran France, the Low Countries and evenetually Germany itself to secure victory in the west in early May, 1945. Wehner von Braun surrendered to American forces on 3rd May, 1945, and was soon in the USA continuing his work. The truth is that the Nazis loved rockets and were far ahead of any other country in their technological achievements and their developments they made would be central to the Space Race in the Cold War. After the war ended there was basically a carve up of the Nazi scientific community, some going to the USSR, others to the USA and some few to Britain. Luckily for NASA, Wernher von Braun made his way to the USA and was the man charged with sorting out the mess after the failed launch in December, 1957. The rise of the American space programme can really be traced back to the developments made by von Braun who went on to develop the Saturn rockets which would power the Apollo programme. The Space Race really was almost  a case of ‘our Nazi scientists against your Nazi scientists’ as they were central to the early developments in the USSR as well.

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Wernher von Braun in his NASA office in 1964. He is standing in front of a number of models of the Saturn rockets which powered the Apollo missions. (Author: NASA; Source: here)

The Soviet Union had deported some 6000-7000 people from Germany at the end of the war as a part of  ‘Operation Osoaviakhim’ which was designed to set up a rocket programme for Joseph Stalin. Recent records indicate that 177 of these were specifically engineers and scientists who had been part of the Nazi rockets programme. Men such as Helmut Gröttrup, an expert on the V-2s flight control system, were instrumental in setting up a Soviet rocket programme in the years after the war. Although Gröttrup and most of the other scientists returned to Germany by the early 1950s, they had a central role in establishing what became the Soviet rocket system.   They left the Soviet trained colleagues to continue the work. The USSR really led the space race during the 1950s and their achievements came simply by building rockets which were more reliable and more powerful than those developed by the USA. In 1959 they had even decided to aim for the moon, quite literally as it turned out. They built a rocket and launched it at the moon, to check that they could both launch something that powerful and to do it with the required accuracy to later travel to the moon. This happened on 12th-14th September 1959 – and the rocket landed just 84 seconds late according to calculations – all of which were made without computers in those days – not bad. This is a section from a report carried in the ‘New York Times’ about the event. It shows the fear and anxiety such events created.

U.S. Failures Recalled

“Some statements also compared the Soviet achievement to last year’s moon-shot failures in the United States. Still other commentators contended that the Soviet feat was made possible by rocket fuels and equipment superior to those of the United States.

But most of all, Soviet propaganda seized upon the event as being of special significance to the forthcoming Eisenhower-Khrushchev talks. The Soviet leader will arrive in Washington tomorrow at the dramatic height of world attention to the Soviet moon strike.

The Premier is certain to offer the event as proof of Soviet might, skill and determination to surpass the United States in all other fields of production and technology.”

Despite the improvement in NASA’s work, the next giant step was again taken by the USSR when, on 12th April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) became the first man to travel into space. He was an officer in the USSR air force and he became a national and an international hero, another sign of Soviet power – and, being considered a rather handsome man, a pin up for many people. His flight lasted 108 minutes during which time he orbited the earth once. Gagarin’s achievement stunned the world and Khrushchev was keen to exploit the propaganda opportunities so he travelled the world promoting the Soviet system and receiving great acclaim. Sadly, he died in an air crash in 1968. Two years later, the USSR achieved another first when Valentina Tereshkova (b. 1937) became the first woman in space, a distinction she achieved on 16 June, 1963.

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Yuri Gagarin (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Valentina Tereshkova with one of the great sixties hairstyles (Author: Alexander Mokletsov; Source: here)

As with the situation in the immediate aftermath of Sputnik, Washington was desperate to respond to the extraordinary achievement that saw Gagarin orbit the earth in April 1961.  There was a response but in some ways, the journey made by Alan Shepherd (1923-98) on 5th May, 1961, only highlighted the gap that seemed to exist. Shepherd was brave but he could only travel using the rocket power available and he was not able to complete a full orbit of the earth, travelling little more than 100 miles on a 15 minute flight, but he was still lauded and treated as a hero on his return. The USA was making progress but was still seemed to be falling further behind the Soviet space programme. In 1971, Alan Shepherd did go one step further than Gagarin, though, by becoming the fifth man to walk on the moon. He also became the first man to hit a golf ball on the moon – and if anyone asks, he hit a 6 iron which went a very long way, apparently.

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Astronaut Alan Shepherd the first American in space (Author: NASA; Source: here)

It is important to remember what else was going on around the time of these events in the Space Race. The U2 spy plane incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs Fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK and a shift in sporting power at the Olympics were just some of the things that were happening as the struggle for supremacy in space was unfolding. These were high profile events that were causing major changes in the way the two sides viewed each other and the way they were perceived by other countries, especially the ‘new’ countries emerging in what was called the Third World . For the the USA, there was a belief in the need for containment of Communism, the continuation of the policy begun under Harry Truman. As Moscow kept grabbing the headlines and seemed to have the technological advantage, there was a very real fear in the West that these countries would choose to go with communism, seeing that as the way to better protection and a share in the ultimate victory. The developments of the Space Race were not some trivial sideshow; for the politicians, they had a huge impact on politics, technology, the arms race, war, negotiations and the media.

In the end, though, NASA and the USA was able to claim the greatest prize of the Space Race through the Moon landing on 20th July, 1969. The primary reasons for this are rooted in two things: the economy and technology. After Eisenhower’s decision to create NASA, the full weight of the economic machine was put behind the effort to develop the technology needed to catch up with the USSR. At the same time, the Arms Race was also in full flow and capitalism proved far more adept at meeting these twin demands than did Communism. For the USSR, Gagarin was really the high-point of its achievements, and from that point on they were not able to make the same progress. From 1963 onwards, there was a momentum shift towards the USA really because of its industrial might. In the USSR by contrast, the final years of Khrushchev’s time in power were marked by the realisation that the country was failing to develop industrially, and indeed, the whole system was in danger of collapse. The USSR faced many urgent needs and it had no chance of meeting them all: supporting the Red Army and developing nuclear weapons in the Arms Race, supporting its satellites in Eastern Europe through COMECON and doing something to raise the living standards of its own people were just some of the challenges to be met by an industrial system that was creaking at the seams. Industrially the country needed to invest and develop but the pressures were such that this was not possible because the re-structuring needed would mean that they ran the risk of falling further behind the USA, with a potentially catastrophic short-fall in military hardware being the result.  Instead of the re-structuring, some things got cut-back and it was the Space Race that suffered. While NASA was developing the Apollo programme as a response to the inspiration of Kennedy’s vision, the USSR was stagnating in its work which was not really surprising in a country which had food queues and shortages of even the most basic products for its people. Gagarin and Tereshkova might have gone into space but most ordinary Russians had no chance of getting a fridge or a car during the same decade.

The cost of the whole space programme was, indeed, extraordinary, and something that the USA was quite simply better able to handle than the less economically advanced Soviet Union. In the early days of computer technology, almost nothing was available to the USSR and the advantage increasingly lay with the USA as each new stage demanded more and more technological skill and development of resources. The overall cost of putting a man on the moon has been estimated at $150 billion in current values, a level of funding which the USSR could never match. In the long run, attempting to match the NASA programme, developing nuclear weapons, maintaining its huge army and supporting its Communist allies were all factors which contributed to the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s. However, the journey from Sputnik and Laika to Armstrong and Aldrin was far from smooth, even for the wealthiest country in history. There were many disasters and setbacks on the way, none more so than the explosions which cost many lives. The most famous and tragic disaster involved Apollo 1 which exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1967 with the deaths of the three astronauts on board. When put alongside the loss of two Space Shuttles later on, it is a reminder of just how high the costs can be in undertaking space travel.

Overall, the balance of successes in the Space Race lay with Moscow until Apollo 11 pulled it out of the fire for the USA. On 20th July, 1969, Neil Armstrong (b. 1930), Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (b. 1930) and Michael Collins (b. 1930 – who was also the first Italian in space as he’d been born in Rome) achieved this feat together. Collins remained in the capsule while Armstrong and Aldrin landed and then, of course, walked on the moon. Don’t get distracted by all the conspiracy theories, shadows, wind, photos and everything else – if you want that, you’ll have to go somewhere else. It’s just worth noting the huge propaganda victory that it was, the way it saved NASA and seemed to restore American confidence in both the Space Race and the Cold War. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the chaos of the Vietnam War, violence linked with the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power salutes of the Mexico Olympics and the shock of events like Woodstock, all tearing at ‘middle America, ‘The Eagle has landed’ was a boost that was desperately needed in Washington.

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One of those controversial photos from the moon landing: Buzz Aldrin and the US flag. If you want conspiracy theories about footprints, fluttering flags, shadows and where was the camera, then there is a load of stuff on the internet. 

And how interesting to note that ‘Man on the Moon’ was Jack Kennedy’s ‘dream’ but it was Richard Nixon who was there to shake hands with Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Funny how things happen sometimes.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘A Man on the Moon’ by Andrew Chaikin; ‘Space Race: The Battle to Rule the Heavens’ by Deborah Cadbury (Harper Perennial, 2007); ‘Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race’ by  Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman (National Geographic Society, 2007); ‘NASA: the Complete Illustrated History’, by Michael Gorn and Buzz Aldrin; ‘First Man: The life of Neil A. Armstrong’ by James Hansen (Pocket Books, 2006); ‘Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys’ by Michael Collins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Ltd, 2009).

Film: ‘Apollo 13’ (Universal Pictures, 1995), ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (HBO, 1998) and ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ (Channel 4 DVD, 2007)

TV/DVD: ‘The Cold War’ by Jeremy Isaacs (CNN), especially Episode 8 ‘Sputnik’ but the whole series gives a context for the importance of the Space Race; ‘Discovery Channel: NASA’s Greatest Missions’ is a four box set which is a celebration of fifty years of NASA.