Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One Small Step for Man...

As a kid sitting in the Colonial Theater in Brooklyn, I was mesmerized during the showing of the ongoing adventure sci-fi serial "Flash Gordon" featuring Buster Crabbe as Flash, and a cast of great characters like scientist Dr. Zarkov, space babe Dale Arden, and Ming the Merciless, evil ruler of the planet Mongo. In every episode, Flash and his companions would get into another fix, usually involving Ming's futile attempts to destroy them, and the nail biting audience audience would always be left hanging on the outcome until the following week. Looking back, the special effects simulating space travel were not so much special as they were comical. The notion of traveling into space was pure fiction back then, that is until the era of space exploration and the space race began in earnest.

World War II provided the impetus and motivation for the development of long-range rockets. The U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and Germany simultaneously developed rockets for military purposes. The most successful were the Germans, who developed the V-2 (a liquid-propellant rocket used in the bombardment of London). At the close of the war, the U.S. Army brought back a number of the V-2s, which were then used in the U.S. for experimental research in vertical flights. Some German engineers went to the USSR after the war, but the leading rocket experts went to the U.S., including the father of rocket science, Wernher von Braun.

The dream of space travel took a big step toward reality when the USSR launched the first orbiting earth satellite, Sputnik 1, Oct. 4, 1957. The second artificial earth satellite was also a Soviet space vehicle, called Sputnik 2. It was sent aloft on Nov. 3, 1957, with a dog named Laika aboard, and it relayed the first biomedical measurements in space. I can remember the uproar in America when the Russians beat us to the punch at being the first in space. President Eisenhower did not see the necessity to explore space or even land on the moon in order to surpass the Russians. Eisenhower labeled a lunar space race as nothing more than an "extravagant stunt." The Kennedy administration did not want the world to view the United States as a country lagging behind Communist Russia, and began to push the race to the moon after the Soviets first manned (Yuri Gagarin) orbital flight that encircled the earth on April 12, 1961.

NASA had been established just before Kennedy took office in 1960, and with von Braun's help, the U.S. began catching up. On May 5, 1961, Comdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., of the U.S. Navy became the first American in space in the Mercury spacecraft, named Freedom 7. On Feb. 20, 1962, Lt. Col. John H. Glenn, Jr., of the U.S. Marine Corps, became the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth, in a flight of three orbits. Every schoolchild knew the names of the seven original Mercury astronauts: Alan Sheppard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and "Deke" Slayton. They were the new American heroes whose courage in the face of the unknown soon helped the U.S. surpass the USSR in the race to the moon. (Sadly, Grissom was killed in a launch pad fire aboard Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967.)

Despite a slow start, NASA administrators finally reached the goal they had set nearly a decade earlier. On July 20, 1969, American Neil Armstrong was the first man to literally step foot on the moon. It was a historic achievement by the United States. Who can forget huddling around the television to hear Armstrong's first words broadcast from the surface of the moon: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Anyone who lived through that moment will never forget it. The United States landing on the moon ended the lunar race with the Soviets. The United States regained the lead and citizens swelled with pride at the momentous occasion.

The leap from Flash Gordon's fictional space trips to the real flights made by brave men and women from all countries came at a cost. In all, twenty-one astronauts, 16 from the U.S., four from the USSR and one from Israel, perished in space or on the launch pad. As much as we remember Armstrong's first words from space, we also remember the horror of the Challenger explosion in 1986, and the Columbia breaking up on reentry in 2003. Man has always looked for new frontiers, and like the brave explorers who boarded wooden ships to sail into the unknown centuries ago, the astronauts took up the mantle and pressed the limits of man's knowledge, sometimes paying the ultimate price. The more timid among us can only express our gratitude to the adventurers who take the risks and push the envelope.

(Information from websites: "John Kennedy and the Space Program" and "History of Space Exploration")


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