On May 25, 1961, before a special joint session of the congress, President Kennedy said, “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 the Earth.” These words are likely to be remembered longer than most words spoken by most politicians.
Before the age of kindergarten, the average child—if he or she thinks about it at all—will most likely want to grow up to be whatever their moms or dads are. Or perhaps, depending on their environment, they may wish to be firefighters or police officers—or maybe a doctor or a veterinarian.
Few children wind up becoming what they imagine they will be when they are four. I’m no different in that regard. But before I went to kindergarten, I had decided I wanted to be an astronomer.
Obviously, I was not a normal kindergartener.
In fact, I recall correcting either my kindergarten or first grade teacher about the order of the planets in the solar system. She did not take kindly to the fact that I disagreed with what she said. I think it bothered her even more that I was right.
So as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by all things associated with space. I remember begging my parents for a telescope very early on and the difficulty I had making use of the sorts of scopes that one could get at Sears back in the early 1960s.
My first memory of the space program was of the launch of Alan Shepherd. I have watched the launch of every American human crewed space flight since. I’ve also spent time watching a lot of the unmanned missions, too. I have fond memories of staying up past midnight to watch the first photos coming back from the Voyager space probe at Neptune, for instance.
Some important space milestones occurred before my earliest memories, however—though not before the events themselves. I actually predate the beginning of the space age by a few months.
2009 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful unmanned mission to the moon—or at least close to the moon. Russia had beaten the Americans into orbit with Sputnik the year I was born, 1957, largely because putting a satellite in orbit was not that high a priority for the United States government, and also because of arguments between two competing methods of getting it up there. Had the government listened to Von Braun, we would probably have beaten the Russians. On the other hand, the fact that they beat us certainly created a panic and probably spurred us on to do more, faster, than we otherwise might have. The perception that America trailed the Soviet Union in technology probably lasted in the minds of many until the United States landed the first people on the moon.
The first successfully launched American satellite had been Explorer 1, launched on February 1, 1958. The second American satellite was Vanguard 1, launched on March 17, 1958 (and it is currently the oldest human made object in orbit around the Earth). Explorer 3 was launched March 26. Explorer 4 went up on July 26, 1958. On December 18, 1958 Project SCORE (Signal Communications Orbit Relay Equipment) became the world’s first communication satellite and broadcast a Christmas message from President Dwight D. Eisenhower through an onboard tape recorder via shortwave frequency.
On October 11, 1958 the United States made its first attempt at sending a space probe, called Pioneer 1, toward the moon. It was also the first spacecraft launched by the newly formed NASA, which had been established on July 29, 1958. Pioneer 1 weighed less than a hundred pounds. Its scientific instruments included an image scanning infrared television system designed to study the moon’s surface, an ionization chamber to measure radiation in space, a diaphragm/microphone assembly that was supposed to detect micrometeorites, and a spin-coil magnetometer to measure magnetic fields. Unfortunately, the probe failed to reach the moon and fell back to earth about 43 hours after launch.
Pioneer 2, launched on November 8, 1958 was NASA’s second attempt to reach the moon. It too failed and crashed back to Earth. Pioneer 3 was launched December 6, 1958 and like its predecessors, it too fell back to earth. The repeated failures led to much handwringing and second guessing. But there’s a reason we think of rocket science as being hard. Getting a rocket into space is just not easy, even today.
And, as so often happened during those early years of space exploration, the Soviet Union managed to get there first with a spacecraft called Mechta, the Russian word for Dream. Launched on January 2, 1959, the Dream space probe, also called Luna 1, became the first human made object to achieve escape velocity from Earth (25,000 mph) and it was also the first to reach the vicinity of the moon when it sped past it at a distance of about 3600 miles. The Russians had intended for the probe to hit the moon, but due to a malfunction in the ground-based control system they missed. So it then went into orbit around the sun—and it is still there, having made, as of 2005, 37 orbits.
The second Soviet made probe sent to the moon, Luna 2, became the first human made object to hit the moon, crashing on September 14, 1959. The first US probe to hit the moon was Ranger 4, which hit the far side on April 26, 1962 (it was supposed to hit the front of the moon and transmit data, but the computer failed and no data was transmitted at all).
The first successful soft landing would not happen until 1966, when the Luna 9 probe landed softly on the moon on February 3, 1966. It had been their twelfth attempt to do so. The United States would follow with the Surveyor 1 probe which landed on the moon successfully on June 2,1966. Amazingly, barely three years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to walk there. July 20 was the forty-third anniversary of that “one small step” that was a “giant leap for mankind.”
The speed with which Kennedy’s goal was achieved, a goal articulated only in 1961, is utterly remarkable.