Fifty years ago today, the Soviet Space Program launched Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into a singular orbit around the Earth in their spacecraft, Vostok 1. The space race was on and Russia was in the lead, having flown an orbital mission 23 days prior to Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission in Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961.
The Russians beat us into space with Sputnik and now Gagarin had flown as the first human in space. To say it was an embarrassment for the United States was an understatement. It was a particular disappointment for President John F. Kennedy.
American pride was hurt.
Truly, the race was on and less than three weeks after Shepard’s May 25, President Kennedy committed the American spirit to placing an American on the moon before the end of the decade.
Big talk, requiring bigger action. The Russians were going to do their best at preventing the Americans from landing on the moon first.
America and Russia, pitted against one another in the grandest race of mankind, would eventually spend millions to be the winner of the race. Every aspect of the race was worthy of the best any novelist or Hollywood screenwriter could offer.
While the two super nations fought for domination of space, they also ended up competing for space on Earth. Cuba would soon become the battleground between the Russians and the Americans and the new technologies of rocketry would play an important role in the fight.
The competition between the two nations heated and served to drive the space programs of each. An interesting historical question to ask is, that if without the competition between the two, would either have accomplished what they did in the race? It appeared as though “a little stress” might be good for advancement.
Unfortunately, the stress also included a dangerous dose of possible nuclear annihilation.
Somehow, the Americans and the Russians managed to keep their suicidal tendencies in check. They also maintained a healthy competitive aggression in the race to the moon.
Over the course of the decade, the governments of the two nations spent a lot on the pursuit to the moon. While many contend we should not spend money in going to the moon, there were just as many, if not more, who saw the value of the endeavor.
Because of the race, we developed new technologies for space flight that emerged useful in many other areas of our lives. Without the race to the moon, we never would have developed computers to the degree we did; Teflon would never have found its way into our kitchens; and we would not have had Tang. Here is a partial list of other things we use everyday in our lives thanks to the space program: light-emitting diodes (LEDs), infrared ear thermometers, advancements in artificial limbs, tempur foam (think Tempurpedic beds), enhanced radial tires for cars, improved baby foods, and improved water purification.
As we look into the future, we need to ask, how will going back to the moon and on to Mars benefit us? There’s no question we will develop new technologies to get us “out there.”
As with the first race that gave us many things we find helpful in living our lives, this next chapter in space exploration will likewise benefit us.
© 2011 J. Clark