Moon walk pushed U.S. to forefront of space race

Stepping on
Stepping on
Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man" was the culmination of a decade-long effort spurred by President Kennedy's challenge to NASA.
By Jonathan Maze of The News-Sentinel

In May 1961, John F. Kennedy promised that an American would land on the moon by the end of the decade.

Never mind that the country had spent only 15 minutes in space. The Soviets had been first in every major milestone and had recently put the first person in space. In the game of global one-upmanship, the United States was being beaten.

Kennedy's speech made the space race openly political. For many Americans, this wasn't a scientific mission as much as it was an effort to gain the upper hand against communism.

But it also came amid a decade of unrest – the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; the Vietnam War and the growing sense that the country shouldn't be involved.

"It was hard for people to feel positive about the lunar landing,'' said Jim Hansen, Fort Wayne native and chair of the Auburn University History Department. "It came with a lot of baggage. People asked, `If we can land on the moon, why can't we take care of all these problems?' ''

But, Hansen added, "At least for one day, all these things were put to the side.''

Personally, Hansen said the effort to get to the moon had little influence on his career choice – at least immediately.

Hansen graduated from Elmhurst High School in 1970, then Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne in 1974.

It wasn't until he went to graduate school at Ohio State University that he became interested in science history.

After he received his doctorate in 1981, Hansen was offered a job as a space-agency historian at NASA. He then went on to write books on the early days of the U.S. space program.

"Once I was hired to do work for the NASA historical office, all of these things came back,'' Hansen said.

"I remember quite well the (Alan) Shepard flight in 1961. I was in second grade, and we watched it in class on an old black-and-white television set. That was at Waynedale Elementary.''

Shepard was the first American in space, escaping the atmosphere for 15 minutes. That came weeks after Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth and safely returned April 12, 1961.

Kennedy was in the first months of a presidency that, so far, wasn't going well – the Bay of Pigs, a planned invasion of Cuba by American-trained Cuban refugees, had failed. The presidency was at a low point, and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev was rubbing it in.

From a scientific perspective, going to the moon may not have been the wisest decision. At the time, Hansen said, the space program wasn't looking toward the moon.

The speech forced NASA to change its direction. It had to find a quick way to accomplish the 10,000 separate tasks required to get to the moon.

"If you had divorced politics and if the country developed a space plan, it wouldn't have come out anything like it did,'' Hansen said. "We probably would have gone a different way to go to the moon.''

Nor was the decision long-term. The program started a major effort to get to Earth's nearest neighbor in a short period of time, requiring heavy spending.

But like a rocket launch itself, the lunar effort flared, then faded. The effort culminated on July 20, 1969, with Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. The United States flew a other missions to the moon, then stopped.

Thirty years later, we've yet to return.

But Kennedy's speech did have benefits. First, the declaration made NASA a priority at a time when many decision makers were questioning whether the agency was worth funding.

It also got us to the moon. Apollo 11 traveled 239,000 miles to a place nobody had ever been.

"It was about leaving the planet for the first time,'' Hansen said. "It's the most significant event of the 20th century. This was our first step off the planet.''

A big step.

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