On March 16, 1926, Professor Robert H. Goddard was scurrying around a snow-covered field in Worcester, Mass. He was preparing to ignite a small rocket assembly mounted on a metal-framed “launch pad.” When he did so, he watched it soar to a mind-numbing height of 41 feet, where, ironically, the history of high-altitude rocketry was born. Though Dr. Goddard was first ridiculed for his ideas about rockets and space travel, others eventually took him more seriously.
One of these was a young Wernher von Braun, who took a keen interest in rocketry and was earning his doctorate as the Nazis took power in Germany. Led by von Braun and others’ handiwork in liquid-propellant rocket engines and guidance systems, Germany undertook to develop what became known to us as the V-2, which was developed in part at Germany’s Army Research Center at Peenemünde.
At the end of World War II, the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union rolled into a defeated Germany. Wernher von Braun and 100 key German scientists surrendered to the U.S., while the Soviets raced to snap up the V-2 manufacturing facilities. As it turned out, these divided assets formed the basis of what became the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Soviets continued manufacturing V-2s and developing the rocketry needed for weaponry and, secretly, other space explorations. In this country, von Braun and most of his team were tapped for their knowledge of practical rocketry and worked at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.
On the night of Oct. 4, 1957, the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., electronically picked up a steady “beep” from an unknown transmitter that was determined to be an artificial satellite orbiting Earth. It was called Sputnik, and the A-flat tone emanating from it was literally and figuratively heard round the world. The Space Race had started.
Sputnik, and eventually Yuri Gagarin’s first-ever manned space flight (April 12, 1961), sent the free world into a panic about the raging Cold War political climate and how space was to figure into it. On May 5, 1961, the U.S. sent Alan Shepard atop a Redstone rocket in a Mercury capsule for his suborbital flight as the first American in space.
Three weeks later, before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy made an iconic pledge: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
As a teenager I watched the Mercury program teach us the rudiments of space flight; the Gemini program teach us how to perform docking and other maneuvers; and finally Apollo that was to take us to the moon and back.
I was a young engineering student 50 years ago when, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched on an Atlas booster from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center with the brave astronauts Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong on board. Five days later, I watched awestruck as Neil Armstrong descended the ladder of Tranquility Base onto the moon’s surface followed by Buzz Aldrin. When they returned to Earth on July 24, I was part of humanity’s collective sigh of relief.
In retrospect, within my lifetime, I don’t think I have ever seen a nation set such an ambitious and risky objective at a time during which some key technologies required to meet the goal did not even exist … and meet it with such aplomb and success.
Finally, with all due respect to the visionary Jules Verne, sometimes science fact outplays science fiction.