NASA's Legacy: The Quest for the Moon
Apollo 17 astronauts pause for a photograph while exploring the moon. Their lunar lander and rover sit perched behind them.
Credit: NASA.

The first manned spaceflights occurred in the shadow of the tensest moments of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the world?s European powers in disarray after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union used propaganda, alliances and proxy wars to outflank the other and broaden their respective spheres of influence. Space became another way to exert dominance over the other.

The space race was ?war by another means,? said Roger Launius, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum here. The Cold War rivals were engaging in a technological rivalry and wanted to prove to non-aligned nations and the rest of the world that they were ?second to none,? Launius said in an Aug. 25 interview.

The Soviet Union struck first in the space race, launching the first satellite, Sputnik, Oct. 4, 1957, leading to the formation of NASA a year later. The agency celebrated its 50th anniversary this month on Oct. 1.

The superpowers were roughly on parallel paths, according to Launius and John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here. The United States launched the first American to space, Alan Shepard, on a Mercury capsule, just about a month after the Soviets sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit on a Vostok spacecraft April 12, 1961.

?The [U.S.] military had been talking about humans in space since the mid-50s on,? Logsdon said in an Aug. 20 phone interview. The U.S. Air Force?s Man-In-Space-Soonest project was a conceptual program, which then was transferred to NASA control and eventually became Project Mercury.

American Space Age

Responsibility for Mercury fell to NASA?s Space Task Group working at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., under Bob Gilruth. The ?premier organization for human spaceflight,? the Space Task Group later became the core of the Houston-based Johnson Space Center (renamed from the Manned Space Flight Center in 1973), Logsdon said.

NASA?s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), also had looked at human spacecraft just two weeks after Sputnik launched, said Ted Spitzmiller, a space historian and author of ?Astronautics: Book 1: Dawn of the Space Age.? NACA estimated a two-year development cycle to send a human into orbit but the orbital launcher, the Atlas, took longer than expected to complete, he said. John Glenn became the first American in orbit Feb. 20, 1962.

Mercury was an experiment to see whether a human could survive the extremely rapid travel necessary for orbit, could perform tasks while weightless and survive the forces of re-entry, Logsdon said. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower?s incentive for the manned program was to see if there were practical uses for humans in space; he was prepared to end the manned space program after Project Mercury, he said.

But the manned Mercury flights commenced under newly elected John Kennedy who, unlike his predecessor, was more interested improving the United States? prestige through the use of ?soft power? like the space program, Logsdon said. Kennedy noted the positive reaction from around the world to Gagarin?s spaceflight and determined the United States could not come in second to the Soviet Union in space endeavors.

Saddled with another Soviet space first and the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, Kennedy wrote an April 20, 1961, memo to Vice President Lyndon Johnson asking if there was a ?space program that promises dramatic results in which we could win?? according to the NASA History Web site. The answer came back that a manned Moon landing would be just such a program.

It was risky but the success of Shepard?s flight gave the struggling president the confidence to address Congress May 25, 1961, and announce the United States would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade and return him safely to Earth.

The war analogy also applies to the budget that was required for the moon landing. It involved a ?warlike mobilization? effort and was ?almost 180 degrees? from what Eisenhower had wanted, Logsdon said.

Charged with landing an astronaut on the moon, Project Apollo was announced July 29, 1960. The proposal departed from NASA?s original 10-year plan, which had been presented to Congress in February 1960 and called for circumlunar flight, not a lunar landing, Logsdon said.

That plan was partly based on what is considered the traditional space program paradigm, which was popularly championed by visionary Marshall Space Flight Center head Wernher von Braun, who wanted to establish a space station in Earth orbit and then travel to the moon, Logsdon said.

The middle child

The Gemini program, which was announced Dec. 7, 1961, was more a predecessor to Apollo than it was a successor to Mercury, Logsdon said. Launius compares Gemini to a middle child that is successful in its own right but oft-forgotten between the firsts of oldest-child Mercury and the splendor of youngest child Apollo.

Gemini was necessary because NASA planners needed to know how to rendezvous and dock. Gemini also maintained manned activity to prevent a problematic five-year gap during the space race with the Soviet Union, Launius said. Gemini was completed in just a year and a half, Spitzmiller said in an Aug. 20 phone interview.

Gemini missions, which often involved rendezvousing and docking with target Agena launch vehicles and one rendezvous between two Gemini orbiters, also helped develop procedures for spacewalks and long-duration missions, he said. Until Gemini the longest U.S. manned mission was the last Mercury flight in which Gordon Cooper spent 34 hours in orbit.

Gemini astronauts were unable to perform efficient spacewalks until Buzz Aldrin perfected a new spacewalking technique during the Gemini 12 mission that would help prevent spacewalkers from exerting themselves unnecessarily.? With a doctorate in astronautics Aldrin had a better understanding of microgravity than his fellow astronauts and he worked diligently on space rendezvous techniques, Launius said. Aldrin developed an ?economy of movement? that is still standard, he added.

Moon or bust

Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins delivered on Kennedy?s promise July 20, 1969, when Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the Moon. The United States could have stopped the Apollo missions after Apollo 11, but the nation wanted to prove it could do it consistently, and scientists were pushing for further lunar studies, Launius said.

In the 1990s Launius had the opportunity to talk to a Russian who had worked in the design bureau of Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev, who is credited with driving the Soviet space program until his death in 1966. He recalls the Russian telling him: ?We weren?t ready to give up after Apollo 11. We thought that was a fluke?? But after Apollo 12 landed on target and retrieved parts of Surveyor 3 they knew they were beaten, Launius said.

Spitzmiller marks Apollo missions 11 to 17 as the ?pinnacle? of NASA?s manned space program. In addition to achieving the only human landings on an extraterrestrial object in history, the Apollo effort also led to technological advances in propulsion, materials, tracking and computers. From ?that point on, things seem to plateau,? he said, recalling how the manned program lost much of its funding and push without charismatic leaders like Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, and von Braun, who retired June 17, 1972.

Ultimately, however, it was the lack of a response by the Soviets after the Moon landing that prompted the U.S. government to pull back on its manned space program, Spitzmiller said.

Three Apollo missions were cut due to reduced funding and the near-fatal accident on Apollo 13, Launius said. The ramp down after Apollo was to be expected, Logsdon said, noting that ?Apollo was an exception? in the manned space program. The politics of 1961 warranted going to the moon but the politics of 1969 did not warrant going to Mars, he said.

With the moon landings completed by December 1972, NASA shifted its focus to maintaining a presence in Earth orbit. With Apollo done, NASA was looking to get back to the von Braun paradigm, Launius said.

Leftovers from canceled Apollo missions became equipment for Skylab, formerly known as the Apollo Applications Program, which began in the mid-1960s. After atmospheric drag damaged the space station during its May 14, 1973, launch, Skylab housed three successful crewed missions that ended in 1974. Skylab plummeted back to Earth in July 1979.

Skylab never was intended as anything other than an intermediate program; it was not designed for resupply like the International Space Station, Logsdon said. However, Spitzmiller calls Skylab a ?lost opportunity? for the United States to establish a permanent presence in space. Apollo or Gemini probably should have continued to support Skylab, he said.

Even before the end of the Apollo Mmoon missions, the United States and the Soviet Union were planning a joint mission. In May 1972 U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexey Kosygin signed an agreement that led to the Apollo-Soyuz Test project. While the July 17, 1975, Apollo-Soyuz mission was technologically insignificant — all the hardware previously had been used except for the docking column — it served as a significant instrument of d?tente for Nixon, a way to help improve relations between the Cold War superpowers, Launius said.

Without the Soviet Union, the manned space program would not be as far along and the nation likely would have followed the von Braun model and not gone to the moon, Launius said. Without the space race, Spitzmiller believes that the United States would not have sent a man into orbit until the mid-1960s and not gone to the moon until the mid-1980s, if at all.

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