On May 5, 1961, the launch pad crew tucked astronaut Alan B. Shepard into his Mercury space capsule Freedom 7 atop an Army Redstone missile. Shephard then took a fifteen-minute, 116-mile ride into the upper atmosphere and became the first American in space. While Shepard's suborbital flight was flawless, the accomplishment was overshadowed by the April 12 orbital flight that took the Soviet Union's Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on a complete 108-minute long circuit of the Earth at an altitude of 62 miles, the boundary where "space" begins.
Four years earlier in 1957, the U.S. , which has previously announced that it would launch the first artificial Earth satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year, was stunned when the Soviet Union unexpectedly launched its version of the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik, traveling companion, in October of that year.
Several spectacular launch pad explosions of American rockets as the U.S. sought to put its own satellite into space didn't do much to restore confidence in American science and engineering technology.
In May of 1961, the preponderance of evidence seemed to show that if there were an actual space race, the Soviets were firmly in the lead.
Of course, what no one knew in May of 1961 was that in 8 years and 2 months, the U.S. would have won the race to put a man on the moon.
On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Saturn V rocket. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, and Michael Collins would travel to the Moon in the Apollo spacecraft, establish an orbit around the Moon in Apollo's Columbia Command Module (CM).
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin would leave the mission’s command pilot Michael Collins in orbit while they descended to the Moon’s surface in The Eagle, Apollo’s Lunar Module (LM).
Once on the surface at Tranquility Base Neal Armstrong would be the first to leave the LM to be the first human to set foot on the lunar surface. Armstrong and Aldrin performed the assigned Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) that included installing experiments as Aldrin is shown doing, collecting geological samples (“Moon Rocks”), and planting an American flag. The EVA concluded with the astronauts boarding the The Eagle to leave the Moon’s surface to rendezvous with the Columbia which would return the three men to Earth, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.
Fifty years later, the Space Shuttle is retired, both the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft are artifacts in museums, raising the question of what is being celebrated, a tribute to the past or a forward-pointing milestone.
Douglas Brinkley’s Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and The Great Space Race, is a STEM epic in the sense that Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are epics; ordinary humans perform super-human tasks. In place of the Trojans and Scylla and Charybdis, scientists, engineers and astronauts wrestled with nature to reveal her secrets and apply those revelations to empowering other humans.
And like Homer, Brinkley has a hero.
Brinkley argues that none of this would have been possible without the leadership of President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy saw how the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet would be won by whichever nation was able to marshal all aspects of its system; its economic, cultural, social energy into using science, technology, and engineering most effectively.
The exploration of space, Kennedy believed, was a modern version of the scientific expedition that Jefferson sent to explore the Louisiana Purchase. Just as the Lewis and Clark expedition opened the great west, sending a man to the Moon would result in economic stimulus with the federal government providing resources, leadership and coordination to marshal the nation’s huge potential for creative effort. The research and development of complicated systems engineering would result in “a tidal wave of advanced scientific knowledge [that] would be unleashed.” (Brinkley, 2019, p. 251}
In a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy “laid out the grand challenge that would come to define his administration and legacy: ‘I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
His rationale was that it was “time for a great new American enterprise” and that taking a leading role in space achievement “which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”
History has shown how correct Kennedy was.
Between 1961-1972, the $25 billion appropriated for the space program went right back into the economy as stimulus, to the more than 20,000 companies, 200 universities and 400,000 American workers who did the research and put together the products that made Apollo 11 possible.
As for the future Brinkley argues the $25 billion price of the program that took American to the Moon was an investment that has led to the “technology-based economy the United States enjoys today, spurring the development of next-generation computer innovations, virtual reality technology, advanced satellite television, game-changing industrial and medical imaging, kidney dialysis, enhanced meteorological forecasting…bar coding…and other modern marvels.”
STEM is responsible for the “modern marvels” to be sure, but the challenges of understanding how the Universe works and translating fundamental findings to make human life better are so daunting that, as Kennedy saw, no single entity, education, business, research organizations can meet those challenges.
The success of the moon project was that it was a “big project...done well.” To use a sports analogy, Kennedy built a team like a great coach and then played to win.” (Brinkley, p. xviii)
Brinkley, D. (2019). Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. New York: Harper.
Apollo 11 As They Shot It
How Did NASA put men on the moon? One Harrowing step at a time.
Yuri Gagarin from Today In Science: Yuri Gararin’s Birthday, posted by Deborah Byrd in Human World|Space| March 9, 2017.
Edwin Aldrin from The National Geographic: Starstruck: Counting Down to Apollo 11 by Jenna Fite and Catherine Zuckerman. NASA photo.
Dr. John HOlton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.