Fifty years ago today, on April 12, 1961 the Soviet Union won the first leg of the Space race when 27 year old Soviet Air Force Colonel Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. More significantly on that day humanity took its first step beyond the home world where life itself began. Three weeks later US Navy Commander Alan B. Sheppard road Mercury Redstone 3 on a suborbital mission and the race had been joined. For the next decade man’s initial exploration of the cosmos was defined, if not driven, by the race between the Soviet Union and the United States. The science and engineering discoveries of that decade, and the four that have followed have been breathtaking. One cannot understate the economic impact on the United States of the advancements realized by the space program. Yet it was the political rivalry between the then super powers which drove the race into space. That race marked its unofficial end on July 20, 1969 when the Stars & Stripes were unveiled by Neil Armstrong on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. The flight of Apollo 11 has been described by Stephen Hawking as the most significant event in the history of mankind.
April 12, 1961: The Dawn of Human Spaceflight
In the years that followed the space race waned and mirrored the relationship between the two super powers. At the height of détente in July 1975, just 6 years after Apollo 11 put America on the moon, US Air Force Brigadier General Thomas Stafford shook hands with Soviet Air Force Colonel Alexei Leonov after the docking of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project. Ironically it has been reported than Colonel Leonov had been selected to lead the first soviet lunar landing mission which never occurred. The 80’s saw the return of the rivalry as the US Space Shuttle rocketed past all other spacecraft before, or since, in terms of its capabilities on orbit. So capable was the space shuttle that in 1988 the Soviets test flew their own “Buran” space shuttle. It was only coincidence the Soviets claimed that their shuttle appeared identical to the American Shuttles. As the cold war ended, the American and Russian programs joined forces to construct the International Space Station (with limited involvement of the Japanese, Canadian and European Space Agency). Again, politics played a driving role in determining both the direction and aggressiveness of our space program. But one thing remained unchallenged from the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon through this very day as the space shuttle ends its 30 year run: America has been the world leader in space technology and exploration.
The impact of the space program over the past 50 years cannot be understated. Things we take for granted like transoceanic phone service, live TV transmissions and our ever present Satellite navigation systems are a direct result of developments in the space program. Computer technology and miniaturization were driven forward in years in what otherwise would have taken decades. Yet perhaps most important in hide sight was the contrast in the Soviet and American space programs and how the US program came to symbolize that which was right with America. While the Soviet conducted their program in secrete, reveling both their successes and hiding their failures after the fact, we conducted our program in full view of all humanity. As a 5 year old I remember my father keeping me up that July night to watch Apollo 11 and then taking me outside and pointing at the moon and saying “remember tonight, there are men on that moon” (I missed the significance at the time as I just could not see them there). Apollo 13 has come to symbolize the strength and resilience of the American spirit where “failure is not an option”. All who were old enough in 1986 remember where they were when the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost live on television, but we also saw how Discovery returned to flight in 1988. As President Ronald Reagan said in an address to the nation on the night Challenger was lost “We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space.”
Apollo 16 Commander John Young's Leaping Salute of the American Flag, April 1972
That brings us to today, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the era of space exploration. What has been done over the last half century will pale in comparison with what the future holds for mankind.
Today we watch with some sadness as the space shuttle program passes into history having seen it’s time come and go. The US and Russia have been joined by the Chinese as the only nation to have placed humans into space, but the Indians, Japanese and Europeans all have openly discussed joining that club. However one nation will leave that group in just a matter of months, the United States. With the end of the space shuttle program, and President Obama’s cancelation of the Constellation program which would have continued US manned orbital flight and led us back to the moon and on to Mars, the United States will for the first time in half a century have neither the capability to place humans in space, but will not even have a viable replacement system under development. While the President claims to have put the future in the hands of the private sector, he has done so without viable funding. When the next flag is placed on the moon or mars, it will not be American, but rather most likely Chinese. Barak Obama simply does not understand what it means for America to lead. He does not understand that great nations do great things. He does not realize that space is the high ground to America’s defense, or if he does he simply wants to abandon it to other nations. President Obama’s failure of leadership has abandoned our leadership in space and conceded it to the Russians and the Chinese. What those countries could not win in the Space Race, Barak Obama has willingly given them. Let us hope that those with better vision and commitment to America’s leadership reverse Obama’s mistake before the damage is irreversible. If not, America will not a leader, let alone the leader as humanity continues to explore the final frontier.