One Giant Leap for Mankind: The Story of the Space Race

          People have been dreaming of flying to the moon for centuries (yeah, Jules Verne, I’m looking at you). But for most of the time, it was confined to poorly informed science fiction (creative, though) mythology and fairy-tales with magical creatures that did not require life support to not, like, die. However, the circumstances in which the moon landings occurred under were not sunshine and butterflies- the world’s two superpowers were at war (cold because of no formal, organized, military battle).
The years-long “Space Race” ended happily, sort of, and that was for the Americans, who won. It’s kinda hard to tell, but either way, yeah! Big telescopes and American and U.S.S.R. rocket ships that look like the stuff in old sci-fi movies, and astronauts and Apollo 13 and human awesomeness strewn with human craziness. Lots of fancy gadgets, too!
          (You can attribute that cheerful rambling to excessive amounts of caffeine.)
The Space Race was fueled by the adversaries’ desire to display their technological prowess during the heat of the decades-long Cold War. The WWII bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki snapped a harsh reality into our minds- we suddenly had the technological capability to destroy ourselves (the perpetual cease-fire between NATO-mainly the U.S.- and the U.S.S.R. was forced by MAD-mutual assured destruction). We needed a form of intimidation sans ruination. Smartly, the enemies turned their guns to the sky to see whose were fastest, rather than the deadliest. They were determined to set some of their people’s feet on soil that was not earthly.
So began the Space Race.
In 1957, Sputnik was built and launched hurriedly by the Soviets in anticipation of an American launch (everything else the Americans did during the race to the moon was because of this metal beach ball with antennae). This was the first artificial satellite-  unequipped by sensors, data coming from ground and radio observation. It may seem primitive by today’s standards (the life-supporting International Space Station is technically a satellite), but it was a vital milestone in space exploration. Later that year, Sputnik 2 was launched with Soviet space dog Laika (aka Kudvryavka, Zhuchka, Limonchik, or Muttnik, the name given by the American press). She was launched in a slapdash capsule with an inadequate thermal system, and sadly died of hyperthermia (overheating) 4 orbits into the flight, prompting animal rights issues.
In 1958, the U.S. launched Explorer 1, which was the first to confirm the existence of the Van Allen belts. This was a big jump over Sputnik 1 and 2– the first was unequipped and ground observation was the sole means to gather data, and Sputnik 2 resulted in Laika’s death.
A few months later, the Eisenhower Administration established NASA as a distinctly non-military (☺︎) civilian organization for space exploration. It became operational 3 months later.
The U.S.S.R. was quick in going even farther in space exploration. Luna 1 was the first to reach Earth escape velocity, and enter a Trans-Lunar injection. They launched Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space in 1961, two years later. The Soviets disguised the fact that he had to eject from the capsule after re-entry and parachute down, not completing the landing (can’t blame him…I wouldn’t want to become a cosmonaut pancake).
Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut in space was launched into a suborbital flight less than a month later. He did not orbit like Gagarin, but he got to control his shuttle and completed landing by splashing down, instead of trying to navigate a tricky terrestrial landing (yay, more firsts!). He was the first person to pilot and splash down a space capsule. John Glenn was the first American in orbit less than a year later (my grandpa met him once…I forget the story).
Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov conducted the first spacewalk in ’65. The mission was a bit of a debacle, but to their credit, the cosmonauts were unharmed after Leonov had some size difficulties getting back into the capsule, him and Commander Belyayev were almost obliterated in a fireball when oxygen exceeded safe levels, and they landed in a section of Russia populated by wolves and bears, waiting a day before authorities found them. If they make a movie about that, I’d see it.
The first American spacewalk occurred shortly afterward, conducted by astronaut Ed White, who was amazed by the vastness of space around him and the earth below. He floated on a 25-feet gold-wrapped umbilical attached to the capsule, navigating with an air gun, and when that ran out, tugging on the cord. White’s career, along with Gus Grissom’s and Roger Chaffee’s, ended in great tragedy in 1967 (Apollo 1) when they were killed during a routine launch pad test. Faulty wiring resulted in several arcs that started a fire, which spread catastrophically throughout the high-pressure 100% oxygen environment.
A year later, America began to sprint for the finish line to the moon, launching the first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7 (the rest were just tests). The first live broadcasts from space were during this 11-day mission.
And finally, the moment that had been but an impossible dream a few decades before, the moon landings, Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin travel to the moon in July of 1969, and on the 20th, Aldrin and Armstrong walk on another world.
It was one giant leap for mankind.

 It’s an amazing world of science out there…let’s go exploring!



Photo c/o National Aeronautics and Space Administration, specifically the
NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center

P.S.: Being a young, budding scientific writer, I like trying to sound professional sometimes… Forgive me if this post was too prolix and discursive 🙂