The year 1969 was a pivotal time, not just in my life or even our nation’s, but for the whole world. It was a year of social, political, moral, and spiritual upheaval, with demonstrations, riots, conflicts, and wars. Free Love, Black Power, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and other issues were all reaching their boiling points. That summer, at the age of 15 years and 9 months, I was a rising senior at Western [Female] High School in Baltimore. I was on the side of both the Hippies and the Black Power activists. I was a fan of both Rock and Motown. I had dared to be on the fringes of the protest movements against the Vietnam War and the new Nixonian conservatism. Yet, I was also captivated by the Space Race, which had begun during my early childhood (when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first orbital satellite) and was about to reach its pinnacle with the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.
On July 20, 1969, I watched the Moon Landing with a dear friend—who’d just graduated from Western High—at her parents’ home. I can still see us all, gathered around the TV, watching the ghost-like images, and cheering after hearing “One small step for man….”.
In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 20, 1969, PBS has produced the documentary, Chasing the Moon [https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/chasing-moon/], a remarkably comprehensive history of the “space race” of the 1950s-1960s. It seems, in some ways, like a prehistoric time capsule. But it is, in fact, my life story—the story of my generation, and it is a vital precursor to the world we live in now.
The following narrative is a panoply of history (remembered and learned), personal experience (much of it scant, with the passage of time), and reactions to and commentary about the era covered by this documentary.
The Cold War (1947-1991)
By the time I was born, in 1953, The Cold War—a period of existential tension over nuclear arms between The Free World (most notably, The United States) and The USSR (The Soviet Union—now Russia)—was already in its 6th year. But by the time I entered school, in 1958, I was already becoming aware of, and affected by, this era of Fear. Fear of Nuclear War (Mutually Assured Destruction—MAD; treated sardonically by the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), with talk of radiation, bomb shelters, and “duck and cover” training in the classrooms of Baltimore and the rest of the nation. [Today’s equivalent is the mass shooting drills in schools.] Our suspicions about Communists had even led to the infamous McCarthy hearings in Congress, where prominent members of the film/television, literary, and music/arts industries were blacklisted for real—and imagined—ties to the Communist Party.
It was also the heyday of Mad Magazine, which gave my generation of kids a “gallows humor” coping mechanism to deal with all the crazy stuff (Alfred E. Neuman’s “What? Me Worry?” was our motto), Rocky & Bullwinkle, especially the stories of Boris & Natasha (a pair of inept Russian spies who were always bested by American knowhow), and Get Smart, the adventures of an inept American spy, Maxwell Smart, who somehow managed to foil the Russians every week.
Atomic Weapons and The Space Race
The possibility of atomic weapons began in 1938 with the discovery of nuclear fission by two German chemists. In 1939, Nazi Germany began declaring war against other European nations, quickly escalating into World War II. The development of rockets by the Germans during this war—and their capacity to build atomic weapons that could be delivered by these rockets—led the United States and its allies into the race to build such weapons first, culminating in the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, effectively ending World War II, but also creating the Western alliances [e.g., NATO (1949), United Nations (1945)] that sought to prevent more international wars and to preserve freedom from tyranny and despotism.
At the same time, however, both the Free World and the Communist countries made deals with German/Nazi scientists to use their expertise in rocketry and atomic science… to build better rockets! It is within this context that the Space Race was born.
And Wernher von Braun was the architect and archetype of the ex-Nazi experts who took up the American banner in the Space Race. In the early 1950s, von Braun brought 120 German scientists to the United States. Though his initial interest was rocketry, his contributions to the Space Race were numerous and varied. He even envisioned a space station, decades before it became reality, and even worked with Walt Disney to illustrate his vision.
Sputnik, Animals in Space, and Sonic Booms
Sputnik was the first artificial orbital satellite, launched in 1957. I was 4 years old, so I don’t really remember it [even though I do remember President Dwight D. Eisenhower (builder of the U.S. Interstate Highway system] playing golf on TV and First Lady Mamie’s bangs]. Sputnik was the size of a beach ball. But the U.S. government saw it as an issue of National Security—worried that it might be used for war in space [Maybe that is why #45 was touting a SPACE FORCE a few months ago?!?] and began its own quest to launch satellites. Without this development, we would not have the plethora of satellites now in existence (weather satellites, communications satellites, etc.).
Animals in Space
Notwithstanding today’s stance on animal research, the purpose of sending animals to space was to test the effects of space on living beings before sending humans “out there.” I wanted to focus on the dogs and non-human primates that achieved orbit during my lifetime (and mentioned in Chasing the Moon). However, in my research for this article, I learned that the first animals to be launched into space were fruit flies(!) in 1947! Their vehicle was a U.S.-flown V2-rocket (the first long-range guided missile, developed by Germany during World War II), and their “mission” was to experience the effects of radiation at high altitudes for scientists to study. As early as 1951, dogs were used for test flights by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But the first successful space orbit by a dog occurred in 1957, when Sputnik II was launched.
As for the non-human primates sent to space, I remember a newspaper photo of a chimp in a spacesuit, but a quick Internet search did not yield that photo. [However, there are many websites, including NASA’s, devoted to all the species of animals that were sacrificed in the name of the Space Race.] The first American non-human primate in space was a chimpanzee named Ham (January 1961). Three months later, In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first human to orbit the Earth.
General Chuck Yeager, a test pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier in an airplane (1947; supersonic flight), was also a major figure in the Space Race (more about him, later). I do remember frequently hearing these ear-splitting sounds as a young child. We’d look up at the sky in wonder, shouting “Sonic boom!”
As the deleterious effects of sonic booms became clear, supersonic flight over land was banned.
Kennedy Debates Nixon about The Cold War
During the presidential campaign of 1960 (when I was about to turn 7 years old), Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared off over the Space Race. Answering a question about the status of the U.S. in this race, Kennedy reminded Nixon of his own words: that the U.S. was first in color television, while the USSR was first in space [https://youtu.be/8SdDhojNT2o; https://youtu.be/jznAJySwkmM], and that he expected more from the U.S. It was not until the famous final televised debate between them that I became a JFK disciple for life, when I declared the debonair Kennedy the winner over the sweaty, nervous Nixon.
In order to find the above-cited debate tape, I watched nearly all the first 3 Nixon-Kennedy debates. If you are a student of history, and especially if you’ve never seen what presidential debates used to look like, I urge you to watch these debates. They were rooted in facts, with references to each candidates’ political record; not innuendo and hearsay.
Politics and NASA
Pork-barrel spending is as American as apple pie. Because the launch sites were located in southern states, it should come as no surprise that Congress members from the South strong-armed President Kennedy to have facilities built in their states: Huntsville, Alabama, Cape Canaveral and Coco Beach, Florida, and Houston, Texas all benefited economically from the space boom.
International haggling also occurred. In 1961, President Kennedy proposed to Premier Nikita Khrushchev a joint approach to space exploration. Khrushchev declined the offer because he did not know Kennedy well enough. By the time he changed his mind in 1963, it was too late. President Kennedy was assassinated that year.
Racism in the Space Race
I had no knowledge of this aspect of the Space Race until I watched Chasing the Moon. In the context of the era, it makes “perfect” sense. In the context of today’s socio-political climate, it is further evidence of how far we’ve come and how much we are in danger of losing.
Ed Dwight, Jr. – Almost-First Black Astronaut
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy decided that a Negro astronaut was necessary. [In one of the 1960 debates I watched, Kennedy used the word “Colored” to describe Black people! Though surprising, it was not offensive to me, since two of my grandparents, of the same generation as Kennedy, also routinely used the word.]
Ed Dwight, Jr. was handpicked to be that Negro astronaut [https://www.denverpost.com/2019/07/05/ed-dwight-jr-first-black-man-trained-astronaut-apollo-11/?fbclid=IwAR2rJcKLlI0tS9wV60aQiXVtgDMP6t4IIqz9rfwWpzRKkAUYIoD9tcIno5I]. He was a 27-year-old aeronautical engineer and was part of the second group of astronauts to complete the NASA training program, led by his hero, test pilot Chuck Yeager. However, he was blackballed and isolated by other leaders and classmates, and White Southern segregationist Congressmen objected to his presence in the program. Ultimately, he was not included in that second group of astronauts introduced to the public on television, and when his former classmate Deke Slayton was asked by reporters whether a Negro had been in the class, Slayton answered, “No.”
This—despite the fact that Dwight had been trotted around to other countries—especially African countries located near U.S. manned stations involved with NASA—to promote the “fact” that there was indeed a Negro astronaut. Ed Dwight was also mistaken for astronaut Ed White, who often received fan mail met for Dwight.
By the mid-1960s, Ed Dwight moved on to other careers, most recently, as a renowned sculptor of major works, including the Alex Haley / Kunta Kinte statue in Annapolis, Maryland. He still owns and operates Ed Dwight Studios in Denver, Colorado.
Dwight paved the way for later Black astronauts, including Ronald McNair, who perished with his crew in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (1986), and Mae C. Jemison, the first female Black astronaut, who flew as part of the Space Shuttle Endeavor mission in 1992.
The documentary Chasing the Moon raised so many aspects of history, politics, culture, experience, and human nature for me that I had to narrow down what I covered in this essay. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the notes I took while watching it. By my nature and my upbringing—in a large family who encouraged study and understanding of the parallels between the past and the present, I could not help but recognize the links between the themes I have covered:
1. The geo-political crises of the Cold War and the current crises between the same nations (albeit with different positions in those crises), especially Germany, the United States, and the USSR/Russia, as well as a continuity in the politicians and their schools of thought. Germany seems to have evolved the most from its Nazi past, while the U.S. has bounced back and forth between progress and regression (liberalism versus conservatism, freedom versus repression, etc.), and the USSR/Russia has only barely wavered from its promise to “bury” the Free World. Even other international situations (The Middle East, Africa, and Asia) are rooted in the consequences of 20th century conflicts.
2. The Space Race of the 20th century, rooted in militarism and government agencies), and the current commercialism getting humans to Mars and beyond. Even the 20th century version had commercial components [surely the collaboration between Wernher von Braun and Walt Disney tapped into Disney’s own futuristic dreams, including his development of the EPCOT Center (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow)]. The 21st century race is largely the purview of billionaire dreamers like Elon Musk.
3. The never-ending struggle for racial/ethnic equality. The United States was founded on premise of equality—but only for white men. And we have spent our entire history fighting over the rights of everyone else. But this struggle does not belong only to the U.S. I’ve referred to racism as the thorn in the side of America. In truth, racism is the thorn in the side of the world.
The bottom-line question is this: Will we humans ever learn from our past? Or will we wind up destroying ourselves and Planet Earth?