Richard Nixon was president of the United States. The New York Mets were winning baseball games. The Stonewall riots just took place. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower recently passed away. Nixon was attempting to withdraw troops from Vietnam.
America needed a pat on the back. It needed more than that. This was a nation that was suffering—physically and spiritually. Something had to be done. And no, the debut of Sesame Street wouldn’t get the job done.
President Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in a response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. From there, the race to the moon was on. And America was destined to be victorious.
“The launch of Sputnik-1 in 1957 was a real shock to the American public and to the science community (in the U.S. and worldwide),” Michael Mendillo, professor of astronomy at Boston University, said.
“There was no space science at the time, but the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) did have a lot of geoscience initiatives.”
America lost the initial space race—to have the first person leave the Earth—in 1961. This was different, though. This meant everything. America couldn’t let the Soviets win in the middle of the Cold War.
In the post-World War II world, America was seen as a leader thanks to the development of nuclear power. It made the rest of the world realize that innovation was only starting in America. Thus, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress in 1961, saying, “In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon. If we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
The journey of Apollo 11 had no choice but to succeed. The entire globe was watching. Everyone remembers where they were on July 20, 1969, watching man walk on the moon for the first time.
“Pulling it off was a fantastic accomplishment,” Mendillo said. “And in the less than a decade of the time frame proposed by Kennedy. The Russians had sent space probes to planets, as we did, but we ‘beat them to the moon.’ This was no minor Cold War victory.”
The late astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong, who passed away in 2012, will always be remembered as the first person to walk on the moon.
Just after he took those famous steps, he uttered the words that entered American and global history books: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But what if it wasn’t mission accomplished? Mendillo said that despite Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the main “challenge was in engineering.” Just two and a half years prior, the Apollo 1 fire ended the lives of Roger Chaffee, Virgil Grisson and Ed White II at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Complex in Florida.
“Given that the Russians had not gone to the moon and that we were obviously well ahead of them, we might have just continued after a period of mourning and assessment,” Mendillo said if Apollo 11 didn’t work out the way it did. “With ever-increasing resources being used in Vietnam, perhaps NASA would have changed to unmanned space probes only. With JFK gone and Nixon no champion of anything associated with Kennedy, my guess is that manned exploration would have been stopped.”
Then, as Mendillo said, the standard was now success. To this day, America continues to lead the globe in space exploration, and there is little stopping this great nation in continuing with its success.
Next stop, Mars?