The Space Race : Tracing the Build-up and the Consequences

Space Race

On July 20, 1969, one man took a small step that signified a giant leap for mankind. The crew of the Apollo 11, with not only the expectations of all the men, women and children of the United States of America, but also the eyes of the entire world on them, became the first humans in history to set foot on the moon. The decade-long efforts of the country’s brightest minds in the field of aeronautical science had culminated in a journey that was four days long and covered approximately 238,000 miles.

The ‘space race’, as it is popularly called today, arose out of the tensions between the USA and the erstwhile USSR during the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century. The world at the time was a bipolar one, and America and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers. The clash between these two nations was more than one of just military might – it was an ideological conflict between the capitalist society in the USA and the Soviet-backed communist system.

The mutual feeling of animosity between these two countries manifested itself in a number of ways, one of them being the historical competitiveness over space exploration. Many at the time felt that space was the next frontier of human civilization, and the famous pledge by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade and to ensure that it was not “governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace”, in his own words, set these two countries on a literal race to the stars.

Up until that point, the USSR had enjoyed a significant lead, having already reached a milestone by sending the first man into space (Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) in 1961, and also by launching of the world’s first artificial satellite ‘Sputnik’ into orbit four years prior to that in 1957. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had already been set up by President Eisenhower in 1958, and in the years following President Kennedy’s speech, NASA’s state-sponsored budget increased fivefold. The Government of the United States of America dedicated itself well and truly to funding Project Apollo (the lunar landing program).

The Soviet lunar landing program, in the meantime, suffered major setbacks due to systemic managerial and quality control problems. At the same time, there was a major lack of internal support, both from the public and the Government, for the Soviet space program. As a result, an insufficiency of funds combined with the death of its chief engineer, Sergei Korolyov, severely crippled the USSR’s chances of making it to the moon before the USA. NASA’s space program also suffered setbacks, most notably when three of its astronauts were killed in a spacecraft fire during a launch simulation in 1967. The Americans plowed away with the Apollo program, however, and successfully mounted a manned orbit of the moon (Apollo 8) in 1968.

At the time of the famous Apollo 11 rocket launch at 0632 hours on the 16th of July 1969, hundreds gathered at Cape Canaveral to watch the spectacle. Excitement around the event was also greatly intensified by the then-recent invention and commercialization of television, allowing millions of Americans to follow the launch from the comfort of their homes. Four days later, once Armstrong and Aldrin successfully set foot on the moon, a historic phone call was made from President Richard Nixon in the White House’s Oval Office to the astronauts on the moon, praising them for having made “the heavens … a part of man’s world”.

No other subsequent launch received as much public and media attention as the Apollo 11 mission, with the sole exception of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, which suffered an oxygen tank explosion, endangering the lives of its crew and reminding everyone of the dangers of space travel. While the crew of the Apollo 13 made it back safely and the nation was deeply grateful for it, public interest in manned lunar missions waned to a great extent post the incident. Apollo 11’s success had marked the end of the space race, with the USA emerging the victor.

Now that President Kennedy’s dream had been realized, state funding towards space exploration declined slowly but steadily as people started to realize the enormous financial cost of sending manned missions to the moon (which produced very little by way of output beyond the first few landings). Scientific expertise was gradually diverted in other directions, and the last manned crew to land on the moon did so in 1972 (Apollo 17).

Even though manned lunar missions were stopped, NASA retained its relevance as an integral part of the American scientific research community. With former NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently having outlined plans for a manned mission to Mars by 2030, and private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX having planned to commercialize trips to the red planet, new frontiers and challenges have already been set for mankind.

-Contributed by Prithviraj

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