The Space Race is Over

So Billy Bragg told us in song.

It was an interesting time the 1960s. There was a lot going in. At the start America got a new, incredibly young, president who had a plan to beat the “evil empire” that was the Soviet Union. Even if just 15 short years before they were both on the same side to overthrow the evil tyrant called Adolf Hitler.

I won’t go into the politics of the time but all I will say is one of the reasons they stopped being BFFs was down to how to split up Europe after the war.

Now getting back to the us presidential elections of 1960 when, fresh faced war hero, was elected as the new president. You may have heard of him – John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Kennedy at Rice University -the start of the space raceHe started the race just after the Russians took the lead when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. He went before congress on May 25, 1961 to ask for an additional $7 to $9 billion over the next five years for the space program, proclaiming that “…this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  What he missed was “… and to beat the Russians there

You have to remember that this proclamation was made in the days when America had only managed to get a rocket capable of lifting a man into space and trailing the Russians by a long way. Their first space flight was only a 15 minute ballistic flight. Not even a full orbit of the Earth.

Then only 6 short years later, we saw the first test launch of the new Saturn V rocket system with Apollo 4.

From Mercury to Apollo - a comparisonAfter a number of test flight culminating with a “dry run” of the landing with Apollo 10.  The Lunar Module got within 8.5 nautical miles of the surface.

Two short months later in July, Apollo 11 took to the skies to make Armstrong and Aldrin the first humans to walk on another “planet”. This was the highest point of the American space program. When Apollo. 13 took to the air, the American public ignored it. Ignored the fact that man was flying to the moon. It was “routine”. That flight was, right up to the point it exploded, that was the start of the end. It didn’t matter that the astronauts took a car there and drove around gathering a huge amount of rock samples.

The end happened sooner than we would have hoped with Apollo’s 18,19 and 20 being cancelled due to budget cuts. A massive waste but, as I’ve said before, the race was won and they ignored the scientific discoveries that could have been made from the cancelled missions.

With the cancellation of the Apollo program, NASA still had unfinished and unwanted Saturn V parts lying around . What saved some of them was Skylab. A converted Saturn V second stage. After initial problems, America’s first space station was a huge success, both in the solar observations and what long, 90+ days, space flight did to the human body. The sort of data that NASA didn’t have at the time.

Skylab in orbitwhen Skylab finally came back to earth in 1979, we all saw the death of Apollo. that once great leap of man’s will to succeed in something that twenty years previously everyone thought couldn’t or wouldn’t happen in the 20th century.

the sad thing about Skylab is it could have been working until well into the 1980s if NASA’s next spacecraft was, launched on time. one of the early missions was to boost Skylab into a higher, and as such safer, orbit.

Bookends to the shuttle program. From STS-1 to STS-135the space shuttle program was a moderate success until it was needed to build the International Space Station. a structure that when the space race started would have been thought as impossible. America and Russia working together on a project to advance science and construct the largest structure ever seen to orbit the earth.

today, the only way to get to space is, realistically, to hop on a Russian Soyuz rocket and ride it up to the ISS.

We are still many years away before the “son of Apollo”, Orion, gets a manned launch. 2021 is a possible date, so it could be within the next 20 years we could see another American walk on the moon. The public’s will is back for the adventure of going back to the moon. I just hope I will still be alive to celebrate the fact.

We could have done so much more if the American government and public hadn’t lost interest so quickly after the “race had been won”.  A Moon base in the 80s? Mars by the year 2000 anyone?  Who knows what could have been if Congress hadn’t had been so blinkered and closed-minded.

Hopefully the next 50 years of space will be better than the last 35!