Space exploration and the Cold War
author Paul Boșcu, May 2017

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Following the end of World War 2 two nations competed for military and political supremacy in the world: The United States of America and the Soviet Union. With diametrically opposed views on politics and economics these nations soon found themselves competing against each other while diplomatic tensions between them began to rise. This state of tension is known as the Cold War. During the Cold War the USSR and USA started competing against each other in space exploration. This competition is known as the Space Race.

In those days space exploration was primarily motivated by military and political goals. Military, the technology developed during the space race was used to improve each nation's rocket arsenal. Politically the space race, with it’s many premiers, was viewed as a propaganda tool to weaken the enemy nation.

The Sixties were a decade of contrasts. They saw enormous political, social and cultural change and have been seen as a nostalgic era of peace and liberalism, overshadowed by a dark cloud of hatred, oppression and wanton excess. They began, ominously, under the longest shadow of the Cold War. Younger generations, inspired by the unequal conservative norms of the time, as well as an increasingly unpopular war brewing in Vietnam, cultivated a social revolution which swept across much of the western world.

Although the Cold War had its downsides (accusations of treason, spying, a costly American involvement in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and a massive propaganda machine), it undeniably produced some serious innovation in technology and industry. The buildup of both the Soviet and American defense systems was another result of these tensions, as was a race to produce and stockpile nuclear arms.

Humanity had advanced enormously between the end of the Fifties and the close of the Sixties, in a thousand social, cultural, political and technological ways. It would have been impossible to imagine on the eve of Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight that within such a short span of time the techniques and tools of rendezvous, docking, spacewalking and reaching the Moon would have been tried, tested and mastered.

The militaristic aspect of the Cold War was frighteningly intense, with a series of treaties, wars, and other events that solidified the opposition between the two countries. War was never officially declared, hence the term Cold War, but these countries and their allies soon had divisive political and technological agendas to meet.

Several decades passed before the end of the Cold War; between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost (transparent and open government) and perestroika (economic restructuring) and President Ronald Reagan’s influence, the Cold War petered out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought further realizations of capitalism and a free market to the former Soviet states.

The launch of Sputnik 1 proceeded as planned on October 4, 1957, thus cementing the Soviet Union’s place in history as the first country to launch an artificial satellite into orbit. The Soviet Union notified observers around the world to watch for the satellite, which could be seen from the ground through binoculars or telescopes as it passed through the night sky. Additionally, the radio signal from Sputnik 1 could be heard with a common shortwave radio. This beeping signal quickly became a symbol of the Soviet Union’s technological prowess.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used the fact that his country had been first to launch a satellite as evidence of the technological power of the Soviet Union and of the superiority of communism. He repeated these claims after Yury Gagarin’s orbital flight in 1961.

Even before the first satellite was launched, U.S. leaders recognized that the ability to observe military activities around the world from space would be an asset to national security. Following on the success of its photo reconnaissance satellites, which began operation in 1960, the United States built increasingly complex observation and electronic-intercept intelligence satellites. The Soviet Union also quickly developed an array of intelligence satellites, and later a few other countries instituted their own satellite observation programs.

The New York Times pointed out that Sputnik was eight times heavier than the device the U.S. government hoped to place in orbit. Americans became edgy and downright apprehensive about their future. One of the core beliefs that drove American society was the idea that U.S. scientists and engineers were the world’s best—and here the Russians were, outperforming them. The Times reported that Dr. Joseph Kaplan, who was chairman of the U.S. section of the International Geophysical Year, called the Russian achievement “fantastic.”

Concerned voices intruded on the admiration for the Russian accomplishment. In an open letter to the New York Herald Tribune, economist Bernard Baruch wrote about “The Lessons of Defeat”: ‘While we devote our industrial and technological power to producing new model automobiles and more gadgets, the Soviet Union is conquering space. While America grumbles over taxes and cuts the cloak of its defense to the cloth of its budget, Russia is launching intercontinental missiles. Suddenly, rudely, we are awakened to the fact that the Russians have outdistanced us in a race which we thought we were winning. It is Russia, not the United States, who has had the imagination to hitch its wagon to the stars and the skill to reach for the moon and all but grasp it. America is worried. It should be.’

In addition to providing security benefits, satellites offered military forces the potential for improved communications, weather observation, navigation, and position location. This led to significant government funding for military space programs in the United States and the Soviet Union.

Although the advantages and disadvantages of stationing force delivery weapons in space have been debated, as of the early 21st century, such weapons have not been deployed, nor have space-based antisatellite systems— that is, systems that can attack or interfere with orbiting satellites.

The U.S. and Soviet governments also developed their own satellite-based global positioning systems, originally for military purposes, that could pinpoint a user’s exact location, help in navigating from one point to another, and provide very precise time signals.

In the autumn of 1957, Russian leaders could proudly boast that they had gotten the best of the United States. Until that very year, there had been several different men running the Kremlin in a collective dictatorship, but that changed in the summer of 1957, when Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the new strongman and sole leader of the USSR. As such, he was naturally compared with his American counterpart, Dwight Eisenhower. “Ike” (as Americans called him) was a capitalist, a believer in free enterprise, and “Nikita” (as many people called him) believed in Russian socialism, which had grown out of the ideas of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.

There actually were some similarities between the two men. Both had been born in the 1890s; both had grown up in farming communities; and both outwardly displayed mannerisms that made them seem “down home,” belying their actual intelligence and sophistication. But underneath these similarities, there was a big difference: the had diametrically opposed views on the world.

In the days and weeks following the orbit of Sputnik I, Khrushchev reveled in the newfound publicity and attention he received from the rest of the world. He claimed that this was just the beginning; that the USSR would soon launch bigger and better satellites and that it would leave the United States behind in the dust.

For his part, Eisenhower kept a low profile, trying to act as if the news of Sputnik did not bother him. An old hand at public relations, Eisenhower did manage to calm the nerve of the American public, but his aides and friends knew better—Ike was furious over the Russians getting into space ahead of the United States.

After the Russians launched Sputnik II and the dog Laika, Eisenhower felt compelled to ease American concerns. He made a television address from Oklahoma City, just four days after the second Sputnik was launched into space. Eisenhower admitted the importance of the Russian achievement, but hinted at greater American accomplishments to come. He spoke of the importance of keeping American alliances with other parts of the free world strong and indicated that taxes would have to be raised in order to keep American defenses in tip-top shape.

Mentioning that the Soviets were celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the 1917 revolution that brought them to power, Eisenhower said: “We know of their rigorous educational system and their technological achievements. But we see all this happening under a political philosophy that postpones again and again the promise to each man that he will be allowed to be himself and to enjoy according to his own desires the fruit of his own labor. We have long had evidence—recently, very dramatic evidence— that even under such a system it is possible to produce some remarkable material achievements. When such competence in things material is at the service of leaders who have so little regard for things human, and who command the power of an empire, there is danger ahead for free men everywhere.”

Eisenhower saved the most important part of his speech for the end, when he called for a renewed American effort in the areas of science, technology, and higher education: “We should, among other things, have a system of nationwide testing of high school students; a system of incentives for high-aptitude students to pursue scientific or professional studies; a program to stimulate good-quality teaching of mathematics and science; provision of more laboratory facilities, and measures, including fellowships, to increase the output of qualified teachers...We need scientists. In the ten years ahead they say we need them by thousands more than we are now presently planning to have.”

The editors of Time were patriotic Americans. They would have loved to put an American rocket scientist on the cover of their magazine, naming him “Man of the Year.” But when they analyzed the situation, and looked at the events of October through December 1957, they reluctantly came to the conclusion that one man—and one man only—could be “Man of the Year”: It had be to Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had scored two impressive victories in the Space Race that year: Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and Laika, the first earthling in space.

The Russian leader appeared on the cover of Time in January 1958. The composite illustration made him look both confident and superior. On his head, he wore a crown composed of the palaces of the Russian Kremlin; in his hands, he held a set of antennae and wires that were made to resemble Sputnik. Khrushchev had never looked so good. The Soviet system had never seemed so triumphant. But the race for space (the expression started to enter American parlance that year) was only beginning.

Just a decade earlier, Cape Canaveral had been one of the least attractive or desirable sections of the Florida coast. But the same circumstances—isolation—that made the Cape undesirable for tourists made it nearly perfect for the budding U.S. space program: Here, one could work in privacy. There was the added benefit that any failed missile launch, or explosion of dangerous gases would probably occur over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, not in an urban or suburban area. It was from here that Explorer 1, America’s response to Sputnik was launched.

Named by Spanish explorers in the 1540s, Cape Canaveral (which means “canebreak” in Spanish) had long been known as a treacherous spot for mariners, and in the century since Florida had entered the Union, its population had not grown by any significant degree. Insects abounded on the Cape, and those who came to Florida looking for fun in the sun avoided this area.

The rocketry equipment arrived at the Cape and the tiny satellite was in place days later. But there were numerous delays, both because of the need to check and recheck the missile system and because of the weather, which could shift very rapidly (Cape Canaveral lies close to the Atlantic Gulf Stream).

The U.S. Army had been in the rocket “business” since 1945, when it took about 100 high-level German prisoners into custody after World War II. Those Germans, who had worked on Hitler’s V-2 Rocket program, were delighted to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians; for their part, the Americans were pleased to take so many high-level engineers back to the United States. Their leader was Werner von Braun who went on the become NASA’s chief scientist during Project Apollo.

At the end of World War II, German engineer Wernher von Braun was captured by the U.S. Army and brought to the United States. Von Braun had been one of the leading scientists in the development of Germany’s V-2 Rocket program and played a similar role in shaping the United States’ missile program.

By 1957, when the news about Sputnik emerged, the Germans had nearly all become naturalized U.S. citizens, and they were pleased to be part of the effort to match the Russians in space.

The German prisoners spent some time on an island in Boston Harbor before being taken to White Sands, New Mexico, to form the core of a new United States missile program. The 30-year-old Wernher von Braun, the son of a Prussian aristocrat, became their leader, and the Germans soon graduated from prisoner status to willing participants in the American program. In 1949, they were moved yet again, this time from White Sands to Alabama. By then, they had developed the beginnings of an American missile program.

The USSR scored another propaganda victory when pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space. In the aftermath of the Gagarin flight, Kennedy asked his advisers to identify a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” The response came in a memorandum recommending that the United States commit to sending people to the Moon, because “dramatic achievements in space…symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation” and because the ensuing prestige would be “part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war.”

Russian citizens learned about Gagarin’s flight from the government-controlled radio news, which alerted them at about 10:00 a.m. Moscow time. The Soviet space program had this big advantage over the Americans. If a flight went poorly, Soviet space program directors would not release any information to the public, and no one would know. By contrast, the Americans working at Cape Canaveral were surrounded by media.

The Americans were dismayed that the Russians had gotten into space first. American technology was coming on slowly and surely, but there was no way that they could immediately duplicate what Yuri Gagarin had achieved in space. Therefore, they decided to attempt something a bit less ambitious: to put the first American into orbit. It was secretly decided that Alan Shepard would be the person to go. Aside from the obvious technological mission, Shepard’s flight had the effect of boosting the moral of the American population in light of Gagarin’s success.

Within hours of Gagarin’s flight, NASA Administrator James Webb appeared on American television to congratulate the Soviets and express his disappointment, but also to offer reassurance that Project Mercury – the United States' own man-in-space effort – would not be stampeded into a premature speeding-up of its schedule. His remarks did little to dampen the fury of the House Space Committee, which verbally roasted both Webb. It made no difference; the Soviets had won the first lap of the space race and John Kennedy, still only months into his presidency, had to respond with something spectacular.

Faced with persistent questions from Congress as to why the United States should remain in second place to Russia in space, together with a perceived `gap' in missile-building technology, Kennedy knew that Project Mercury's first manned flight would not even match, let alone surpass, Vostok's achievement.

Just seven minutes after he splashed down, sailors from the USS Lake Champlain hauled Shepard aboard the ship. They cleaned him up and doused him in champagne. Even though Shepard’s flight was very brief compared to Yuri Gagarin’s, Americans rejoiced. President John F. Kennedy awarded a special medal to Shepard, and the scientists at NASA began to believe that they would catch up with the Russians soon.

Born in New Hampshire, Shepard was the son of a U.S. Army colonel. He had risen fast in the ranks of the U.S. Air Force himself and was seen as perhaps the most hard-charging of that very competitive group of seven astronauts. Shepard would take off from Cape Canaveral and perform a very short flight in space.

Americans were thrilled with Shepard’s performance. President Kennedy was so pleased and impressed that he went before Congress, just three weeks after the flight, with a special message: He wanted America to go to the moon. It was an intense moment. Kennedy asked for $1.8 billion in additional funding that year, partly for defense, partly for international aid, but a sizeable chunk of it was for space exploration. He was serious about the goal, and wanted an American to land on the moon before the decade was over.

The major impetus of Project Apollo was political. In order to place America squarely in the lead during the Space Race of the 1960s, the highest levels of American government had to get involved, and President John F. Kennedy rose to the challenge. The Apollo program’s stated goals — to meet the “national interests” of the United States in space as well as to establish its dominance beyond Earth — echoed this winner-take-all sentiment. Of equal importance, and the real means of achieving those first two goals, was executing significant scientific work on the Moon and developing the ability for people to work and function there.

Thanks to the success of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite and Vostok 1 mission , as well as the United States’ Project Mercury, which had shown the world that both robotic and manned missions could orbit the Earth, the Space Race was becoming an all-out sprint. The Americans were clearly in second place in the early 1960s because the Soviets had more experience with space travel and possessed larger rockets. However, no country had yet won the ultimate prize of placing a human being on the Moon, and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration in the 1950s hadn’t put a heavy emphasis on this particular goal.

Although initially not a huge supporter of the space program, Kennedy seized the political and technological moment to initiate a program that would bring the nation together. In May 1961, in response to Yuri Gagarin’s successful space flight the previous month (and perhaps as an antidote to the recent Bay of Pigs debacle), Kennedy committed intellectual and financial resources to putting an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. At this point in time, the U.S. had only launched one astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a suborbital flight just a few weeks earlier!

In an instantly famous speech made at Texas’s Rice University on September 12, 1962, Kennedy both summarized his position on how he saw America fitting into the race to the Moon and justified the expenses and sacrifices involved: “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Kennedy became one of the nation’s biggest supporters of the space program, and his job was, as he clearly recognized, not easy. A significant portion of the U.S. budget was devoted to Project Apollo, and Kennedy had to make the case for why such a vast expenditure was needed. In his 1962 address at Rice University, Kennedy reminded the audience, and the nation, of the country’s position behind the Soviet Union in the Space Race. He painted a picture of American ingenuity and hard work and laid out a bold goal of sending astronauts to the Moon within just eight years.

Kennedy holds a somewhat nostalgic, even mystical, place in the hearts of space aficionados, as the first major world leader to truly support a peaceful exploration programme with words, deeds and serious money. However, Kennedy's motivations were at least partly political. At the time of his appointment, American missile and space technology had fallen seriously behind that of the Soviet Union, opening up a much-publicised `gap' between the two superpowers and creating an issue which had been a central component of his election campaign.

Even as he made his speech, Kennedy knew that he would be traveling in a few days. He and Nikita Khrushchev had made plans to meet in Vienna, Austria, for their first “summit” conference; the tradition had been established by Khrushchev’s visit to President Eisenhower in 1959. Kennedy and Khrushchev met for several hours on. No official transcript of the meeting was made, but Kennedy aides were certain that their man had been bullied and browbeaten. Word has it that Khrushchev threatened to go to war over Berlin, the former capital of Nazi Germany. The meeting marked a renewal of cold war tensions.

Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, flew from Washington, D.C., to Paris first for their meetings with French president Charles de Gaulle. The French leader, like so many others, was greatly charmed by the First Lady.

The Americans, Russians, British, and French had occupied Berlin ever since the end of World War II, and the Russians had made efforts to kick their former war allies out. The issue had not escalated to war, but Khrushchev made some bold hints that he was now willing to go that far.

The American president left believing, correctly, that Khrushchev was a dangerous man, and that the United States would have to resist his threats. Khrushchev left thinking, incorrectly, that Kennedy was an indecisive young man who could be bullied in the future.

The race for space continued. The Americans prepared for a more ambitious project. The United States had been thrilled to put Alan Shepard in space, but he had only remained there about 15 minutes. Now there was a desire to have an astronaut orbit the earth, and to stay up in space for several hours. John Glenn was selected for the second mission. Months of preparation went into this project. About 20,000 people at NASA were involved in one way or another. Everything had to be checked and rechecked a dozen times, if not more. NASA and the U.S. astronauts worked under a greater burden than their Russian counterparts: the media pressure.

The American newspaper, radio, and television media all knew when a launch was approaching, and they were determined to have their questions answered. By contrast, the Russians could launch when they wanted, and, if things went wrong, no one ever knew (at least not for many years).

Glenn stood out, even among such a group of dedicated and competitive men. Born in Cambridge, Ohio, he had been a very young U.S. pilot in World War II, and then a more mature and seasoned one in Korea. In 1957, Glenn had broken a record by flying the first supersonic jet flight across the continental United States. That was the same year that the Russians launched Sputnik, and Glenn quickly saw that the center of action was transitioning from jet flight to space capsules.

Perhaps no American pioneer ever returned to a louder and more sincere welcome. Glenn received a medal from President Kennedy and spoke before a joint session of the two houses of Congress. And, days later, he had a parade up Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Glenn received tremendous honors and he took them all in stride.

A few days before Glenn's historic mission, another historic event was underway on the Glienicke Bridge, linking Potsdam to West Berlin, as the Soviet intelligence officer Colonel Vilyam Fisher was exchanged for the American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Two years earlier, in May 1960, Powers had been shot down near Degtyarsk in the Urals by a salvo of S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missiles. He had been despatched from an American communications facility at Badaber, close to Peshawar in Pakistan, to photograph Soviet ballistic missile sites.

Powers had succeeded in ejecting from his stricken aircraft and parachuted to the ground, whereupon he was captured and placed on trial in Moscow. Khrushchev, meanwhile, announced to the world that a spyplane had been shot down, but deliberately omitted to detail the fate of its pilot. The Eisenhower administration, assuming that Powers had been killed, set to work creating a cover story that he had actually been flying a weather research aircraft, which accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace. Khrushchev proved this to be a lie, revealing that the pilot was indeed alive and the remains of his largely-intact spyplane were displayed in Moscow.

Fisher had moved from England to the Soviet Union with his Bolshevik sympathising parents in the early Twenties, where he became a translator and, after military duty, trained for the secret services. Sent to Canada and, later, the United States, to recruit and supervise intelligence agents, he was captured by the FBI in June 1957 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. His exchange for Powers and an American economics student named Frederic Pryor was followed by continued service with the KGB until his death in 1971.

Powers was criticised upon his return to the United States for having failed to activate the U-2's self-destruct charge, which would have eliminated the camera, photographic film and other classified components. He had also not used a CIA-provided suicide pin, secreted inside a hollowed-out silver dollar, to avoid capture and the possibility of torture. Three weeks after his release, as John Glenn paraded in triumph through the streets of Washington and New York, Powers testified before the Senate Armed Services Select Committee and was found to have followed orders appropriately and praised “as a fine young man under dangerous circumstances''.

Powers subsequently worked for the U-2's contractor, Lockheed, as a test pilot and was later hired by the Los Angeles television station KNBC to fly its new telecopter. In August 1977, returning from an assignment to cover brush fires in Santa Barbara, his telecopter ran out of fuel and crashed, killing both Powers and KNBC cameraman George Spears.

The initial missions had gone well, but it was time to move on. NASA announced its new selection of astronauts. Nine new men were added to the astronaut roster; the most prominent of which was Neil Armstrong, who would become famous in the future. NASA specifically declared its intention to have more engineers in this second astronaut group.

The first group—the Mercury Seven—had largely been chosen for their skill and experience as test pilots; the nine men of the second group were mainly engineers. They were not as close as the Mercury Seven had been, partly because they were not solely test pilots. The Gemini Nine, as they were called, collectively were more educated than the Mercury Seven, with a smattering of master’s degrees in complex, technical topics.

Deep within the Gulf of Cazones, on the southern coast of Cuba, is a place known as the Bay of Pigs. Events at this small, nondescript place would lead to a major diplomatic incident between the United States, Russia and the newly established pro-communist regime of Fidel Castro on the island. It would leave the Kennedy administration, still reeling from Yuri Gagarin's flight, severely embarrassed and, in the eyes of socialists, would significantly raise the profile of both the Soviet Union and Communism. The Americans sought to invade the island and overthrow Castro, who had allied with the Russians, but failed dismally.

The roots of the debacle had actually been laid during the presidency of Kennedy's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. A year after Castro had come to power with his own brand of revolutionary rule, the CIA had begun secret efforts to train and equip a force of up to 1,500 Cuban exiles, with the intention of invading the island and overthrowing the dictator. Initial plans sought to land a brigade close to the old colonial city of Trinidad, some 400 km south-east of Havana, where the population was known to generally oppose Castro's regime.

Castro was beginning to align himself with the Soviet Union, agreeing to buy Russian oil and expropriating the American-owned refineries in Cuba when they refused to process it. The Eisenhower administration promptly cut diplomatic ties with the fledgling nation, which only served to strengthen Castro's links with the Soviets. When Eisenhower reduced Cuba's sugar import quota, Castro responded by nationalising $850 million-worth of American property and businesses. Although some of his policies proved popular among the Cuban poor, they alienated many former supporters of the revolution.

Less than a month after his inauguration, an opportunity presented itself for Kennedy to topple Castro: the Cuban armed forces possessed Soviet-made tanks and artillery, together with a formidable air force– surely a tangible threat to the United States' security. As these plans were being thrashed out, the landing site for the anti-Castro brigade was changed to an area in Matanzas Province, 200 km south-east of Havana, at the Bay of Pigs. The exiles' chance of success here was limited still further by warnings from senior KGB agents, by loose talk in Miami and by the interrogation of over 100,000 Cuban suspects, which gradually exposed the plans.

Of critical importance to these plans was Operation Puma, which sought to undertake 48 hours of air strikes, eliminating Castro's air force and ensuring that the exiles – known as `Brigade 2506' – could land safely at the Bay of Pigs. This failed when additional waves of air support were cancelled; Kennedy wanted the invasion to appear as if engineered wholly by the Cuban exiles and not by his own government.

Two days after the first bombing run and still under the impression that they could rely upon several more waves of decisive air cover, over 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in four chartered transport ships. They were joined by a pair of CIA-owned infantry craft, together with supplies, ordnance and equipment. The hope that they would find support in the local populace, however, proved fruitless. Cuban militia had already contained the Escambray rebels, Castro had executed several key suspects thought to be involved in the plot and troops were waiting at the Bay of Pigs. The hard fighting exiles were forced back to the beach.

By the time the fighting ended, 68 exiles were dead, together with four American pilots, and the remainder captured. Some would be executed and over 1,100 imprisoned. After lengthy negotiations, the latter were released 20 months later in exchange for $53 million in food and medicine from the United States.

The fiasco proved extremely embarrassing for the Kennedy administration. Although he admitted responsibility for the bungled invasion, Kennedy refined his plans to draw the Soviets into a space race and perhaps gain more credibility for his government. His motives, of course, were chiefly political, but he was clearly pinning his colours to the space flag.

‘Is there any space programme,’ he asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson in one of the 20th century's most influential memos, ‘that promises dramatic results in which we could win? Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space or a trip around the Moon or by a rocket to land on the Moon or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man?’

One of the main personalities approached by Johnson as he weighed up the options was the famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who, in a memo, felt that the “sporting chance'” of sending a three-man crew around the Moon before the Soviets was somewhat higher than putting an orbital laboratory aloft. Von Braun's judgement won the day for Johnson.

Years later, commentators would speculate cynically that Kennedy’s motivations for supporting the space programme and, in particular, a manned expedition to the Moon, were based purely on political concerns: the need to beat the Soviets, overcome the Bay of Pigs embarrassment and prove America's technological mettle.

After the Bay of Pigs East German troops sealed borders inside Berlin and began the construction of what would become a permanent barrier around the three western sectors of the city. The closure of this border, as a means of discouraging defections, was carried out by East German authorities, with no direct Soviet involvement, although some observers have seen Nikita Khrushchev's insistence on launching his nation's second cosmonaut only days earlier as propaganda cover for constructing the wall. The result was that West Berlin, now completely surrounded, became an isolated enclave in the hostile territory of the Russian zone.

Since the end of the Second World War, the former territory of Nazi Germany had been divided into four occupation zones – controlled, respectively, by the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Although it lay deep within the Russian sector, the old capital was itself divided into four areas. Within the next few years, increasing tensions led the American, British and French sectors to become consolidated into the Federal Republic of Germany, together with `West' Berlin, while the Soviet region became known as the German Democratic Republic, with `East' Berlin.

Officially, the East German perspective of the wall's purpose was as a means of protecting the “new and more beautiful life” of the socialist republic from western “imperialists and militarists''. In reality, it was a means of forcible separation and ensured that defections would be eliminated; if necessary, by deadly force. Indeed, East German guards were encouraged to regard anyone attempting to escape as a traitor and shoot them.

Despite these risks, as East Germans saw the barbed-wire monstrosity rise, some took their chance. A young guard named Conrad Schumann leapt over into West Berlin and was driven away at high speed by a waiting car. Other escapees jumped from apartment windows, used hot-air balloons, dug tunnels, flew ultralights and slid along aerial wires. One even drove a sports car at full speed through the barrier.

Inside West Berlin, meanwhile, mass demonstrations, led by Mayor Willy Brandt, who vehemently criticised the United States for failing to respond, achieved little. President Kennedy, speaking a few weeks earlier, had acknowledged that he could only hope to protect West Germans; to attempt to do the same for East Germans would lead to an embarrassing failure.

In spite of the fact that the wall's very presence violated the post-war Potsdam Agreement, Kennedy's administration later told the Soviet government that the barrier was now “a fact of international life” and refused to challenge it by force. Nonetheless, a show of force to provide at least some visible reassurance for West Berliners was needed. For the next three and a half years, American battalions would rotate into West Berlin by autobahn at three-monthly intervals to demonstrate Allied rights to the city. In June 1962, shortly before two more cosmonauts pulled off the Soviet Union's next space spectacular, work started on a second, parallel fence.

General Lucius Clay – Kennedy's special advisor and mastermind of the 1948 Berlin Airlift – and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson arrived in the city. Early the following morning, a column of nearly 500 armoured vehicles and 1,500 troops left the Helmstedt-Marienborn checkpoint, arriving in Berlin just before midday, under the wary watch of East German police. Clay and Johnson met the force, which paraded through the streets, and duly left the city under the command of General Frederick Hartel and a 4,200-strong brigade.

The second fence lay slightly further inside East German territory and effectively created a no-man's land between the two barriers. It would become notorious as the wall's `death strip': paved with raked gravel to make footprints easy to spot, it afforded would-be defectors no cover, was filled with tripwires and provided a clear line of fire for the ever-watchful East German guards.

Two months after it was built, the new wall claimed its first victim. In full view of hundreds of witnesses, together with the western media, 19-year-old bricklayer Peter Fechter was shot as he tried to escape into West Berlin. It was only the beginning. By the time the wall finally fell in November 1989, 133 `official' – and probably far more – defectors would be murdered attempting to gain their freedom.

An event which would have important ramifications for two Soviet cosmonauts got underway on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean. It was part of a joint effort between the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA) and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and was known under its umbrella designation of `Operation Dominic'. Its objective, nicknamed `Starfish Prime', was to detonate a thermonuclear warhead some 400 km above Earth's surface. This was a response of the USSR’s testing of “Ivan”, the world’s most powerful hydrogen bomb.

The testing of such devices in both the Pacific and Nevada in 1962–63 sought to evaluate new weapons designs, their effects and their reliability. Its timing was crucial: in August 1961, Nikita Khrushchev had announced the end of a three year moratorium and resumed Soviet weapons testing a few weeks later, when the most powerful hydrogen bomb ever built – nicknamed `Ivan' by the Russians – was detonated over the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

Both Ivan and Operation Dominic would arouse much condemnation and, indeed, despite their own efforts, the Soviets would request diplomatic assurances that the Americans refrain from their nuclear weapons testing whilst cosmonauts Nikolayev and Popovich were in orbit.

Just weeks after the Gemini nine were introduced to the press, the United States experienced one of the greatest crises of the entire cold war. President Kennedy learned that Russian missiles placed in Communist Cuba would be able to target American cities on the East Coast. Kennedy called in his advisors for a quick and intense briefing at the White House. The fact that the United States had missiles of its own in Turkey, pointed at the Soviet Union, hardly seemed to enter the equation. President Kennedy decided on a measured response, informing the American public of the threat. Fortunately the situation was resolved without war.

There were those who favored ignoring the matter for the moment, those who called for a measured response, and others who wanted an all-out strike on those Russian missiles in Cuba. Kennedy's other attempts at aggression included Operation Mongoose, which sought to destabilise and overthrow Castro through a series of (ultimately unsuccessful) covert military activities, together with continuous reconnaissance overflights and harassment from the United States' Guantanamo naval base.

Nikita Khrushchev agreed to supply surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles to Cuba for coastal defence and, a few weeks later, began installing Soviet-controlled nuclear weapons on the island. This emplacement was a clear response to Kennedy's own installation of 15 Jupiter missiles at Izmir in Turkey, all of which were aimed at cities in the western Soviet Union, including Moscow.

Kennedy went on television to tell the American people of the danger, and he announced a quarantine of the naval space around Cuba, but he did not take immediate action. For several days, Russian ships continued to steam toward Cuba, suggesting that a confrontation in those waters could bring about World War III.

The scientists and engineers of the U.S. space program played no part in the events of October 1962. They were observers, like almost everyone else. But there was a general perception that if the Russians had more advanced missiles and if they could use that fact to blackmail the United States, it would somehow be NASA’s fault. Fortunately, the situation did not come to that. Days after Kennedy’s television address to the American people, Khrushchev had his ships turn around. The Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, in the space of about two weeks. But no one forgot it.

Kennedy agreed secretly to remove all missiles set in Turkey and respect Cuban sovereignty, in exchange for Khruschev's removal of all weapons from the Caribbean island. However, the decision to remove the Turkish batteries was not made public at the time, with the effect that Khrushchev appeared to be the loser. His apparent retreat from a situation which many observers felt that he had started , coupled with his perceived inability to handle international crises has been cited as one of the factors in his overthrow two years later.

The Cosmodrome at Baikonur was the world’s first operational space launch facility. It was top secret from the very beginning. The Russians did not want the United States or other countries to know the whereabouts of their astronauts or rockets. Located on a major river in what is now the country of Kazakhstan, the Cosmodrome was well hidden for several years. The general American public did not learn about it until decades later, but top-level American leaders learned about it through U.S. spy planes flying over Soviet air space. From here Sergey Korolev would direct the Russian space programme.

There, in a remote and rather inhospitable part of the Soviet Union, Sergei Korolev trained his cosmonauts and planned his many launches and probes. The Soviet Union is much farther north than Cape Canaveral, so the Soviets had to deal with harsh weather. Due to its more northerly location, the Cosmodrome created greater difficulties for the Russians throughout the race for space.

Korolev pulled off many successes, but there were also some dismal failures concealed from the press and the world at large. Driven by the top Soviet leaders, and by his own relentless quest, Korolev fell into ill health. He died after a bungled operation in 1966. His death was a major loss for Russian science.

In the early Seventies, when American astronaut Tom Stafford asked to visit the site in readiness for the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission, he met stubborn resistance. The Soviets' desire to mislead and confuse prying westerners about this ultra-secret place was pursued to such an extent that even its name remained imprecise.

In the summer of 1963, the Russians put the first woman in space. Khrushchev was intent on pulling off everything before the Americans could. Valentina Tereshkova was sent up from the Russian Cosmodrome aboard Vostok VI. Premier Khrushchev made the most of this propaganda victory. He boasted that the Russians appreciated women more than the capitalist West, and that more women would go up in space. This did not prove true. The Russians soon returned to an entirely male cosmonaut corps. Americans looked on all this with wonder and more than a bit of envy.

Unlike the American programme, which was proving to be more gradual, yet had a longer-term aim with its Apollo Moon landing project, the Soviet leadership seemed uninterested in the exploration of space. Theirs was a programme exploited by Nikita Khrushchev's regime purely for the political, military and propaganda advantages that it offered. One further advantage was first tabled by Sergei Korolev involved sending the first woman into space.

Tereshkova returned to Earth to receive the congratulations of Khrushchev and her fellow cosmonauts. Only later was it learned that she knew little about the space program and had been selected because she embodied many of the ideal qualities of a Russian Communist woman.

Americans thought that maybe the Russians really were that far ahead. Perhaps Soviet science did have some big advantage over the capitalist West. If any one person could have calmed the hysteria, it was Kennedy. By 1963, he had become more than a political leader; he seemed to speak for and represent the best aspects of the American people. Kennedy did make one rather astonishing offer to work with the Russians in a joint space program, but it was quickly refused.

Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova's parents provided the almost-perfect socialist background that Khrushchev wanted to present to the outside world. Her father, a tractor driver, had fought in the Russian Army as a sergeant and tank commander, dying in the Finnish Winter War when Tereshkova was two years old. Following her historic mission, incidentally, she was asked about possible ways in which the Soviet Union could demonstrate its gratitude to her: she requested a search to be conducted for the exact location of her father's death. This was duly done and a monument stands today in Lemetti to commemorate Vladimir Tereshkov.

Her family and friends knew nothing of her plans: even her mother was under the impression that Tereshkova would be undertaking `special studies' for a women's precision skydiving team. In fact, the first that Yelena Tereshkova knew about her daughter's achievement was on the day of her launch, via Radio Moscow.

Kennedy would not be able to see how the space race turned out. On November 22, 1963, he was shot and killed as his motorcade passed through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Four American presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and Kennedy—have been assassinated, but the last of these deaths has received the most attention.

One of the most dramatic and pervading images of the Sixties will always be the assassination of President John Kennedy, at the midpoint between the end of Project Mercury and the first unmanned flight of Gemini. Perhaps more than any other event, it marked a pivotal change in the political and social climate of the period.

Kennedy had been in Texas for several days and, tanned and wearing sunglasses, had visited and been photographed at NASA's new Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), near Houston, shortly before his murder. His decision to visit Dallas and tour the streets in an open-topped motorcade had come about in the hope that it would generate support for his 1964 re-election campaign and help mend political fences in a state just barely won three years before.

As the motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository, the first crack of a rifle sounded from one of its upper windows. There was very little reaction to the opening shot, with many witnesses believing that they had heard nothing more than a firecracker or an engine backfiring. Kennedy and Governor John Connally turned abruptly, with the latter being the first in the presidential limousine to recognise the sound for what it was. However, he had no time to respond. According to the Warren Commission, which investigated the case, a shot entered Kennedy's upper back and exited through his throat, causing him to clench his fists to his neck.

John Connally, though critically injured, survived, but Kennedy arrived in the Parkland trauma room in a moribund condition and was declared dead by Dr George Burkley at 1:00 pm. A priest who administered the last rites told the New York Times that Kennedy was dead on arrival. An hour later the president's body was removed from Parkland and driven to Air Force One, from whence it was flown to Washington, DC. Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also aboard Air Force One, was sworn-in as President at 2:38 pm.

After Kennedy’s assassination, his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, immediately replaced him as president. Sworn in as the thirty-sixth president, Johnson declared his intention to continue Kennedy’s policies in most respects. For anyone in NASA listening —and there were many who did— that meant the race for space was still on. Despite criticisms in the media, NASA continued on it’s path set out by Kennedy.

One of Johnson's earliest official acts was the establishment of the so-called `Warren Commission' to investigate the president's death. Chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the very man who had sworn Kennedy into office, the commission presented its report to Johnson. It found no persuasive evidence of a domestic or foreign conspiracy and identified Lee Harvey Oswald, located on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, as the killer. It concluded that both Oswald and his own murderer, Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, had operated alone and without external involvement.

President Johnson was never as strong a supporter of the space program as Kennedy had been. Johnson was most keenly interested in social programs, which he collectively called the “Great Society” programs. Tremendous progress was made there. Medicare, a medical plan for senior citizens, was created in 1965. Major voting rights legislation was passed as well. By 1966, President Johnson seemed well on his way toward creating the Great Society at home in America. But there were still plenty of people plugging away at the space program, too.

NASA has often been criticized for its high budgets and exorbitant costs. To combat such concerns, the organization has routinely presented its budgets to the public, and major NASA leaders like James Webb and Tom Paine (who were NASA directors between 1960 and 1970) had to regularly testify before Congress. Given all the criticism it received, NASA felt it had to have a “squeaky clean” image, and it succeeded in doing so throughout the 1960s.

In 1964, the U.S. space program still seemed to lag behind the Soviet program. What Americans did not know—and what they would not know until the end of the cold war—was that the Russians were running out of steam. The Russian space budget had always been smaller than the United States’, and the emphasis on secrecy often affected the progress made by Russian scientists. Then again, the Russians never openly stated what their goals were.

As early as the summer of 1961, President Kennedy had committed the United States to the goal of placing a man on the moon. By contrast, Khrushchev was tight-lipped. Conferring with his number-one space man, Sergei Korolev, Khrushchev put forth a two-pronged plan. First, he would emphasize accomplishments like having the first woman in space and the first person to walk in space; only then would he give his full attention to sending someone to the moon.

What Khrushchev failed to see—and it was really a failure of the imagination—is that the goal of having a man on the moon could pull in more popular support and more enthusiastic participation than anything else. Anything less would provoke a lukewarm reaction.

The gradual progress of the American civil rights movement exploded into violence when 600 protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama were attacked by club-wielding, tear-gas-spraying police. As a result, 7 March 1965 would become forever known as `Bloody Sunday'. At the time, Selma had a population that was 57% black. The vast majority of the black community lived beneath the poverty line, a situation which they sought to rectify. The situation reached a head when an Alabama state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson as the latter tried to protect his mother and grandfather during a nocturnal demonstration.

Jackson's murder was the catalyst for the first of three Selma-to-Montgomery marches. The initial plan was for the marchers to ask Alabama Governor George Wallace if he had authorised the troopers to shoot during the demonstration, which ultimately broadened with Martin Luther King's desire to request better protection of black voting registrants from Wallace.

The reaction from the governor, disturbingly, was that the march represented a threat to public safety and he opposed it. Mounted police awaited the marchers and, in the presence of journalists, attacked them with clubs, tear gas and bull whips. Amelia Boynton, one of the organisers, was beaten and gassed and 17 other marchers were hospitalised.

King organised a second march. However, an attempt to gain a court order to prevent the police from interfering was rejected by a federal district judge, who instead issued a restraining order to stop the march until further hearings could be held. To avoid breaking the terms of the order, King led the marchers out to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, held a short prayer session, then turned them around and disbanded. Violence, however, was not far away. That evening, three white ministers involved in the second `march' were clubbed by white supremacists. One of the ministers, James Reeb, later died from his injuries.

After finally gaining approval for an unimpeded march, the full journey along Route 80 through rain and cold was completed from Selma to Montgomery on 24 March. Five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Voting Rights Act, which prohibited states from preventing their citizens from voting on the basis of colour or race. Moreover, states with a history of abuses over voting rights could not make any changes without first requesting the consent of the Department of Justice. A wind of change had taken hold in America.

The Russians unveiled their new Voskhod. Aware that the Americans were winning the propaganda war, Khrushchev decided on a novel approach. The early Russian flights had all been in one-seater Vostoks, and the Americans were well on the way to developing their two-seater Gemini capsules. Therefore, Khrushchev ordered Korolev to develop a brand-new three seater spacecraft. Given a hopeless task, and knowing that the dangers for the cosmonauts would increase, Korolev did the only thing he could. His designers ripped out the ejection seat from the old Vostok spacecraft and renamed the capsule Voskhod.

There simply was not enough time. Korolev explained this, at length, to Khrushchev, but he received the same response. It must be done. Even with the seat removed, space was too tight, so Korolev reluctantly agreed that his cosmonauts would fly without any bulky space suits. Such a decision would have brought anger and alarm from the public in the United States. But Russians did not know; their space program still kept its secrets.

The name `Voskhod' was devised to convince western observers that it was actually a totally new spacecraft, whereas in reality it was little more than a slightly-modified and somewhat heavier Vostok.

Voskhod took off. The Russian press had a field day. They had three cosmonauts in space while the Americans—for the moment at least—were doing nothing. But just one day into its flight, Voskhod was recalled. The cosmonauts were furious, then perplexed. Everything was going well; why would they be brought down? The answer was simple: Nikita Khrushchev’s government had been removed from power. Leonid Brezhnev was the new soviet leader. Khrushchev had made his share of errors, but his downfall was a definite negative for the Soviet space program.

In the summer of 1964, opinions of Khrushchev within the Presidium were hardly complimentary. He had long been considered a boorish leader, which some blamed on his limited education. He had twice interrupted a speech by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, labelled Chairman Mao as an "old boot'', famously pounded his fists – and shoe – on the desk during a United Nations General Assembly meeting and declared, in reference to capitalist nations, “We will bury you!'' Not only did he prove hugely embarrassing for the Soviet Union's ruling elite, but many of his policies were ill-conceived and ill-considered.

Various charges were levelled against Khrushchev: unsatisfactory performance in dealing with Soviet agricultural problems, disrespectful treatment of members of the Presidium – including Brezhnev – and disdain for their opinions, the embarrassing withdrawal from Cuba, deteriorating relations with China, ongoing events at the Suez Canal and others. Khrushchev had already decided, his son later wrote, to resign his powers without a struggle. He would stand down on the basis of ill-health and his son would recall him returning home, thrusting a black briefcase into his hand and declaring “It's over ... retired''.

Khrushchev had been top boss in the Soviet Union for just about a decade. He had accomplished a good deal, especially in the space program, but his followers also remembered the humiliating retreat during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They ejected Khrushchev in 1964 and replaced him with a collective leadership that included Leonid Brezhnev, who would emerge as the new leader throughout the next few years.

None of the collective leaders who followed him had Khrushchev’s ambition to be the first in space, and none were willing to commit as much money as he did. There were other issues to take care of, both at home and abroad.

While it is indisputable that the United States had been catching up with the Russians by that point, it is also indisputable that Khrushchev’s fall from power harmed the Soviet space program. What followed was a brand-new race, with the Americans often taking the lead.

Both American and Russian engineers were keen to have their astronauts “walk” in space. Of course, it would not be an actual walk, not as we on Earth know it. The American engineers were a bit slower than the Russians. In March 1965, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stepped from his spacecraft. The Russian press celebrated; its cosmonauts had performed another “first.” The Americans were very aware that they again finished second.

Chris Kraft, overall flight director for NASA, had this to say: “Five days before we were to launch Gemini III, the Russians pulled off another space first. I never doubted that they timed this mission to preempt us and to turn the world’s attention back to their own space program. They had the advantage of knowing exactly what we were going to do, and when, simply by reading the newspapers. So in the propaganda race we were running, the Russians could always count on the element of surprise.”

Gemini IV blasted off. Aboard were Ed White and Jim McDivitt, both members of the second astronaut group, the New Nine. Once they were in a settled and calm orbit of the earth, White and McDivitt depressurized the cabin of the spacecraft. Gently they eased open the cockpit door, and Ed White stepped out into space.

Prior to his death, Korolev had never been given full praise and credit for his remarkable role in the Soviet space program. He had been called the “Chief Designer” in the Soviet press, never having his actual name printed. That finally changed when he received a state funeral in Moscow. Leonid Brezhnev, one of the leaders of the collective government, was the highest-ranking official at the funeral. All the scientists, technicians, and dignitaries involved with the space program were there, including Yuri Gagarin who had been Korolev’s star pupil.

There were a number of speakers, with the best, Gagarin, saved for last. In Korolev’s eulogy, Gagarin said: “The name of Sergei Pavlovich [Korolev] is linked with a whole epoch in the history of mankind—the first flights of the artificial Earth satellites, the first flights to the moon and to the planets, the first flights by human beings in space, and the first emergence of a human being into free space.”

During the late 60’s many western observers would find it hard to fathom why the Soviets – once so far ahead in their space program – fell so far behind during this period. Key to the Soviet slowdown was the death of Sergei Korolev.

In his autobiography, Alexei Leonov lamented that, even compared to Wernher von Braun, Korolev was both a giant and a genius. At a conference in Athens in 1965, Leonov asked von Braun why America's supposed technological superiority had not enabled them to launch their own Sputnik, their own Gagarin, their own Voskhod 2, first. The man who designed the Saturn rocket, which would win the Moon race, responded respectfully that the `Chief Designer', his name still unknown in the west, was a far more determined man.

Russians learned too late of the greatness of Sergei Korolev, but this was not the case with their next great tragedy. Yuri Gagarin died in 1967. Only six years had passed since Gagarin had been the first man in space, but Soviet officials had not treated him well. Initially, Gagarin had been fussed over and praised, but he had not had the opportunity he really wanted—to go back into space and prove himself once more. His immediate celebrity status meant that Khrushchev and other Russian leaders wanted him grounded, to stay safe so he could trumpet the triumphs of the Soviet space program. Gagarin died in a plane crash.

Gagarin rapidly tired of cutting ribbons and giving speeches, but there was no alternative. Who was he to defy the Communist Party leaders?

The Russian leaders had gone to great lengths for Korolev’s funeral, but they pulled out even more stops for Gagarin. He had a state funeral and was buried not far from his former boss. Several U.S. astronauts requested to come to Russia for the funeral, but their requests were denied. Gagarin’s death, the Soviets said, was a purely internal affair.

At the beginning of 1967, the U.S. space program was in the best shape ever. Only nine and a half years had passed since the Russians launched Sputnik; in the time since then, the Americans had definitely gained the lead in the space race. The directors at NASA did not know that the Russians were in bad shape—even worse with the death of Korolev—but they could feel that the United States had taken the lead. Tragedy struck the Apollo program when a fire broke out during a launch pad test in one of the command modules. Astronauts Virgil I. Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger B. Chaffee were killed in the fire.

Fearing that Congress could pull the plug on Apollo with immediate effect, NASA set to work on the night of the disaster on its own internal review, with an eight-man panel headed by Langley Research Center director Floyd Thompson. Although Olin Teague, chair of the House Space Subcommittee, was keen for NASA to complete its work, others within the Senate were impatient and called for a hearing. There, Administrator Jim Webb was verbally grilled, with representatives condemning “the level of incompetence and carelessness'' as “just unimaginable''.

The loss of the three astronauts of Apollo I was devastating. President Johnson attended the funerals of Chaffee and Grissom at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Observers noted that the families were quite cool to the president, since they blamed him for sending the three men into harm’s way. Their grief and anger were understandable, but the president had little to do with such decisions. He was far more occupied with the Vietnam War, with mounting budget deficits, and the youth rebellion that was threatening to topple his presidency.

Time pondered the situation: “Though it happened under circumstances that, theoretically, are no more hazardous than the car ride to the Cape, the fact that Grissom, White, and Chaffee lost their lives on the ground has a symbolism all its own. For even more important than the down-played dedication, the casual-seeming courage, and the nonchalance under pressure that the astronauts bring to bear in actual flight is the drilled-in professionalism, perfectionism, and thoroughness that they must have to master the incredibly intricate tools of their trade. They are heroic pioneers, but they are also brilliant technicians—and they could not be astronauts without being both.”

On the evening that the Apollo 1 crew lost their lives President Johnson signed a document popularly called `The Outer Space Treaty'. Today the document has around a hundred signatories and a further two dozen who are partway through their ratification of it. Its 17 articles decree that signatories will refrain from the placement of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction into Earth orbit, onto the Moon or onto any other celestial body. The treaty explicitly states that the Moon and other celestial bodies are to be used for peaceful purposes and forbids weapons testing and military exercises or emplacements on them.

Officially, the treaty is known as `The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including The Moon and Other Celestial Bodies'. Essentially, the document forms the basis for the earliest international space law. On the very day that Grissom, White and Chaffee died, it was opened for signing by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

The treaty denies signatories the right to `claim' a celestial resource, such as the Moon, as its own and declares all to be “province of mankind''. It also assures the safe and cordial return of any astronauts or cosmonauts who make an unexpected landing within the borders of another nation.

The astronauts liked to call it the “non-staking-a-claim treaty'' and as the afternoon wore into evening, they mingled with guests at the event, including ambassadors from the Soviet Union (Anatoli Dobrynin), Great Britain (Patrick Dean) and Austria (Kurt Waldheim, later Secretary-General of the United Nations).

On 27 April 1967, an unusual communique was issued by the Soviet news agency, Tass. Days earlier, Vladimir Komarov had been launched into orbit aboard the new Soyuz spacecraft. Within hours, however, euphoria had vanished into tragedy. In a handful of sentences, carefully crafted by the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Dmitri Ustinov, it was revealed that Komarov's ship had “descended with speed'' from orbit, “the result of a shroud line twisting''. The result: “the premature death of the outstanding cosmonaut''. Little more would be known in the western world for nearly three decades.

Soyuz was the brainchild of Sergei Korolev, the famous `Chief Designer' of early Soviet spacecraft and rockets, with the original intention that it would support a series of lunar missions to rival the United States' Apollo effort. When it became increasingly clear that neither the Soyuz, nor an enormous booster rocket needed to reach the Moon, called the `N-1', would be able to beat the Americans, the Soviet paradigm shifted to near-Earth missions.

Over the years, western observers suspected that the Soyuz 1 mission had been pushed to fly prematurely and improperly as a political stunt in advance of the May Day celebrations, since 1967 coincided with the half-century anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Additionally, Leonid Brezhnev was in Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia at the time, at a meeting of the Soviet bloc leadership; the propaganda value of a major space success, for him, would be incalculable.

Soyuz 1 was launched and inserted into a satisfactory orbit. Within moments of reaching space, the Soviets referred to his mission, by name, as `Soyuz 1', clearly indicating that a `Soyuz 2' would follow soon. Four and a half hours into the mission, a bulletin announced that the flight was proceeding normally; as, indeed, did another report at 10:00 am. More than 12 hours then elapsed before any more news emerged from the Soviets, and when it did finally come, it was devastating. Not only had there been no Soyuz 2 launch, but, stunningly, Komarov had lost his life during re-entry.

President Johnson was never as eager a space enthusiast as President Kennedy. The United States was involved in the Vietnam War. By 1967, there were more than a million Americans in South Vietnam, and, despite their overwhelming technical and material superiority, the Americans were not winning the war. As the public became disenchanted with President Johnson and the war, many American youth also began to complain about their country’s space program. What could justify the expense of billions of dollars when many Americans were fighting and dying in Vietnam and there was poverty in the United States?

In the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination, Johnson asserted his own support for continued military operations in South Vietnam. The destroyer Maddox, on an intelligence mission along the North Vietnamese coastline, fired upon several torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. An alleged attack on the Maddox and another destroyer, the Turner Joy, prompted the Americans to initiate air strikes, marking their first large-scale military involvement in the conflict. Although the second incident was later discovered to be an error, it led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Johnson the authority to assist any southeast Asian nation under threat of communist aggression.

Few of the astronauts commented on the youth rebellion of the 1960s; they were all too busy trying to launch Apollo and get to the moon. But the protests were there all the same. Some of the astronauts would have to reckon with the social changes after the fact.

In February 1965, an attack on a Marine barracks in Pleiku led to the ignition of Operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder, a pair of vigorous aerial bombing campaigns to force North Vietnam to terminate its support for the Vietcong. The campaigns would last for three years, depositing, by November 1968, over a billion kilograms of missiles, rockets and bombs into North Vietnam, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia and onto Vietcong installations in South Vietnam. Ultimately, it failed.

Days after Gemini IV hit the waves of the Atlantic, the United States Military Command in South Vietnam announced that its troops would shortly begin fighting alongside South Vietnamese forces against the pro-communist North. It was the beginning of a long, bloody and infamous phase of American history that would see a markedly different United States by the end of the decade compared to that which John Kennedy had inherited in 1961.

A month after the Pleiku attack, 3,500 Marines were deployed to South Vietnam to help defend the United States' air bases, effectively beginning the ground war, with public opinion overwhelmingly supporting the move as part of a global conflict against communism. By the end of the year, troop numbers had swelled to 200,000. It was a commitment which many would regret as the Sixties wore on and the death toll rose, with the phrase "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many boys did you kill today?'' chanted by protesters on the steps of the Pentagon in late 1967.

A generational separation had begun. The young people who protested the Vietnam War and the expenses of the space program were in their late teens and early twenties. As the sons and daughters of men and women who had come of age during World War II, this new generation knew little of their parents’ sacrifice or fear during previous wars. Quite a few young people believed that the entire conflict between the USSR and the United States—the cold war, space race, and all the rest—was a manufactured crisis designed to enrich the arms manufacturers.

The astronauts observed the protests and confusions, but generally did not experience them directly. The 30 astronauts selected between 1959 and 1964 were almost all of a “middle” generation, neatly sandwiched between the World War II parents and the 1960s children. Most of the astronauts had been born around 1930 and had come of age just after World War II and during the Korean War. They had married sometime in the 1950s, and their children were younger than the generation of protestors of the 1960s.

By the second half of the Sixties, with almost half a million American troops in Vietnam, many of the astronauts were developing itchy feet to return to active military service. “We were uncomfortable wearing the hero image,'' wrote Gene Cernan, “while our buddies were bleeding, being captured and dying in a real shooting war for which we had been trained.'' Some of them, indeed, approached Deke Slayton, NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office, with a view to taking leave of absence from NASA, and returning to the front line. They were free to leave, if they wished, Slayton told them, but he offered no guarantees of a job when they returned.

“The Pentagon hammered in the final nail,'' continued Cernan. “We could return to active duty if we wanted to, and even fly, but never – ever – would we be allowed into combat.'' The negative propaganda impact of the Vietcong capturing American astronauts in a combat zone was too unpalatable for the Johnson administration to bear. “Vietnam,'' wrote Cernan, “would not be our war.''

While it is seldom cited as a reason for the current decline of the space program, energy conservation has played a role behind the scenes. In 1967 Americans bought gasoline for as little as 25 cents a gallon. There was a tremendous supply of oil coming into the country from places as far away as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. In October 1973, Israel and its Arab neighbors fought a conflict called the Yom Kippur War. Neither side really won the war, but the oil-rich Arab nations decided to punish the United States and other Western nations for their support of Israel. Gasoline prices doubled in 1974 and did so again in 1979.

Suddenly, Americans experienced a reduction in oil supplies and higher prices. Many alternative types of energy were discussed and even introduced, but neither solar fuel cells nor nuclear reactor energy seemed practical. Then, as the income of average Americans rose during the 1980s and 1990s, they tended to forget the higher oil prices. Although gas was sometimes as high as $1.50 a gallon, Americans could afford it.

In September 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into America’s Gulf Coast, wrecking large parts of New Orleans and disrupting supplies of oil and natural gas. On some days that autumn, gas at the pump cost as much as $3.50 per gallon. Americans who strained to fill their cars, SUVs, and trucks could not imagine that their government would freely spend valuable fuel trying to go to the moon, Mars, or anywhere else, at least not until a new and cheaper form of energy was found.

Russians and Americans alike faced great challenges in 1968. The war in Vietnam continued with no end in sight. Domestic opposition to the war continued to grow, and in January 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy announced that he would challenge President Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination in the upcoming presidential election. Johnson pulled out of the presidential race.

Johnson had inherited President Kennedy’s policy makers and his agenda. One could say Johnson had even gone beyond Kennedy in promoting his social programs, especially the War on Poverty. But Johnson had allowed himself to be sucked ever deeper into the Vietnam War. Whether Kennedy would have done the same will forever remain open to question.

No one expected that McCarthy could unseat a sitting president, but he did just that. When the New Hampshire primary was held in March, McCarthy won enough votes to make Johnson look like a poor candidate, and days later Johnson pulled out of the race for good.

Another event shook the American nation. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The civil rights movement might be said to have paralleled the space program, in that they began around the same time and ran on parallel tracks. Like two trains headed in the same direction but on different sets of rails, the civil rights movement and the race for space did not intersect.

There were no astronauts involved in the civil rights movement, and there were no major civil rights leaders who attached themselves to the space program. Even so, the assassination of a person as great as King could not fail to have an effect on everyone.

King had visited Memphis in support of black sanitary works employees, who were striking for higher wages and better treatment. A few days later, he delivered his famous `I've Been To The Mountaintop' speech, then checked into his room at the Lorraine Motel. At precisely 6:01 pm, as he stood at his balcony, he was shot; the bullet passing through his right cheek, smashing his jaw, travelling down his spine and finally lodging somewhere in his shoulder. In spite of emergency surgery, the man who had fought tirelessly for civil rights in America was dead. His murder instantly sparked fury in as many as a hundred cities across the nation.

Senator Robert Kennedy of New York State announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. A younger brother of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy was seen as the obvious heir to his brother’s legacy throughout the Johnson administration. As such he was a viewed as a supporter of NASA and the Apollo Project. Kennedy won the nomination. But then Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968. The Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago that summer, was a bitterly contested fight between the supporters of McCarthy and supporters of another candidate, the vice president at the time, Hubert Humphrey.

The political battle between McCarthy and Kennedy was one of the most interesting in American politics. Calm, quiet, even retiring by nature, McCarthy was passionately opposed to the Vietnam War, and he drew great applause from youth groups, especially on college campuses. Kennedy did not have as strong a draw with American youth, but he seemed to personify many of the Democratic Party traditions.

Younger people disliked Humphrey for having supported the Vietnam War. And many people had just plain given up on politics after Kennedy’s assassination. There were fights between the Chicago police and protestors, and the Democratic Party emerged in shambles.

In the spring of 1968, as NASA wrung its hands over the Saturn V, the United States' strategy of attrition in Vietnam seemed to be failing as the ongoing conflict consumed ever more hundreds of lives. At the end of January, a hammer blow struck the misguided sense of complacency that the Vietcong were little more than snipers and unable to mount major co-ordinated attacks. The so-called `Tet Offensive', which ran in three devastating waves until September, was intended to strike military and civilian command centres throughout South Vietnam and spark uprisings among the population.

Although it ultimately proved disastrous, militarily, for the Vietcong, the offensive was so vast (countrywide) and so well-organised (involving more than 80,000 troops) that it shocked both Johnson's failing administration and the American public. In March, citing conflict both abroad and at home, Johnson announced that he had no intention to “seek and . .. will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president''.

In 1968 came yet another event which has become infamous as perhaps the most notorious act of mass murder in American military history, involved the tiny South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. There at least 300 – some reports say as many as 500 – unarmed civilians, including women and children, were raped, tortured, mutilated and massacred by American troops. When it reached the ears of the world a year later, the incident sparked outrage and condemnation and strengthened already simmering public discontent over an unpopular war.

The so-called ‘Charlie Company' who gained notoriety for the massacre had arrived in South Vietnam three months earlier, just before the January outbreak of the Tet Offensive. My Lai and several neighbouring hamlets were suspected of harbouring Vietcong fighters and the wheels of a major American offensive were quickly set in motion. It would, the commanders urged, be an aggressive assault, involving the total destruction of the hamlets, the slaughter of livestock and even the pollution of wells.

On the evening before the attack, Captain Ernest Medina of Charlie Company advised his men that nearly all civilians at My Lai would have left for market by early morning and only Vietcong sympathisers or fighters would remain. Differing opinions would materialise over the years over whether Medina specifically instructed his men to slaughter women and children.

Upon reaching My Lai soon after dawn, no enemy fighters were found, but their presence was suspected and Lieutenant William Calley – the only military officer to be convicted of murder that day – began shooting at what he later described as a “suspected enemy position''. Calley's actions lit the touchpaper for the murderous rampage that followed: the soldiers began attacking anything that moved, using rifle butts, bayonets and hand grenades to summarily execute young and old alike. When the bloodbath ended, My Lai was torched.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, witnessed much of this from the air and identified many of the soldiers committing the atrocities; his and others' testimony would prove crucial when the perpetrators were brought to trial.

The carnage might have gone unknown had Ron Ridenhour, a former member of Charlie Company, not sent a damning letter in March 1969 to newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon, numerous congressmen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon and the State Department, detailing the chain of events at My Lai.

Eventually, in September 1969, Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder and 25 other officers were later charged with related crimes. At around the same time, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines broke the story... and public support for the Vietnam War, already on shaky ground, vanished.

The general election that autumn was something of a letdown. The Democrats did nominate Hubert Humphrey. He did his best, but could not distance himself from the policies of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon of California. In November 1968, Richard Nixon was elected the thirty-seventh president of the United States. Nixon was president during all the U.S. moon landings and was instrumental in the development of the space shuttle program.

Nixon engineered what must be considered one of the great political comebacks of American political history. Having been narrowly defeated by Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960, Nixon was solidly beaten by Pat Brown in the race for governor of California in 1962. Telling journalists that “you won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore,” Nixon had gone off into a vengeful retirement. But he had not given up.

Young people were especially saddened and disillusioned by the deaths of King and Robert Kennedy. Many said there was no real difference between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, and so they chose not to vote. That helped Nixon win by a narrow margin in November. After a long period in the political wilderness, Nixon became the nation’s thirty-seventh president.

If they were looking for good news, Americans found none in the summer of 1968. But that autumn, some Americans returned to something that had previously caught their interest: space. The deaths of three astronauts in 1967 and the passage of nearly a year and a half of time had led many Americans to forget about the space program. But in the fall of 1968, they learned that NASA was about to launch its most ambitious venture yet: a manned orbit of the moon. Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and William Anders were the astronauts selected for the mission. The Apollo VIII mission was a success.

Time magazine ran a cover that showed a Russian cosmonaut and an American astronaut doing a “run” in space for the moon. The truth is that the Russians were well out of the game by this point. They had done quite well in the early stages, but their orbits of 1961 and 1962 had not led to further technical development. One might even say that some of the early American failures turned out to be beneficial, because they instilled a sense of responsibility and determination to make the space program successful.

Men and women have watched the sun and the moon for hundreds of thousands of years. Untold generations of humans have admired the blazing heat produced by the sun and the nighttime solace provided by the moon, but not a single person had ever experienced an earthrise until December 24, 1968. On that morning, the three astronauts looked across the lunar surface and saw the earth rise over the moon’s horizon.

Lovell, Borman, and Anders worked together like synchronized clocks. Within hours of launching, they had performed a technical feat, detaching the command module from the Saturn rocket and then reengaging with the Saturn to “link up” with the lunar module. This would have been unthinkable four years before, but the effort put in by those who worked for NASA helped perfect the difficult rendezvous maneuver.

Time named the three astronauts “Men of the Year.” A Time editorial mused on the connections and the differences between the youth rebellion of the 1960s and the space program: “What the rebels and dissenters ask will not be found on the moon: social justice, peace, an end to hypocrisy—in short, Utopia. But to the extent that the rebels really want a new kind of tomorrow—rather than simply a curse on and an escape from today—the moon flight of Apollo 8 shows how that Utopian tomorrow could come about. For this is what Westernized man can do. He will not turn into a passive, contemplative being; he will not drop out and turn off; he will not seek stability and inner peace in the quest for nirvana. Western man is Faust and if he knows anything at all he knows how to challenge nature, how to dare against dangerous odds and even against reason. He knows how to reach for the moon.”

The mission proceeded like clockwork. The men in mission control had continuous voice communication with the three astronauts, whose vital signs were holding steady.

As the last few days of blood-stained 1968 faded into history, however, the long road to the Moon had been won. The enormous technological challenges needed to navigate men and machines across a gulf of more than three hundred thousand kilometres of uncharted emptiness had been met. Nor was Apollo 8 simply a lucky shot: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders had been guided into a precise orbit around our closest celestial neighbour and had taken a truly giant leap towards the small step which, seven months hence, would change humanity's view of itself forever.

There are those who say that Christmas Day 1968 was a tremendous moment in human history. For the first time ever, humans were able to witness the fragility of their home planet, which could only be done by looking from outer space. Millions of people watched the camera footage on the news or read the essays in Time. Many of them were persuaded that more needed to be done to save this planet before humans proceeded elsewhere in the universe. For the crew of Apollo VIII, seeing the earth from space was another huge moment in the growing environmental movement. The very first Earth Day was commemorated in April 1970.

The environmental movement had begun a few years earlier. Many historians credit Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring with launching the movement. Published in 1962, Silent Spring predicted that men and women would hear no birds in the future if pesticides continued to be used in farming and gardening.

Many observers credited the space program, and its pictures of earth from space, with helping to start the movement. The use of advanced technologies has led many people to come to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the land, earth, and sky that make our planet so beautiful.

Americans went wild over the photos brought back by Apollo VIII. Prior to that, the country had begun to show signs of weariness with the space program—its expense, especially. With the arrival of the photos in the beginning of 1969, Americans approached the idea of space with a new verve and vigor; they believed it was possible to do what President Kennedy had promised— to reach the moon before the decade came to an end. Thus a difficult year in the history of the United States ended on a positive note.

To put the achievement of Apollo VIII in perspective, it is important to look back on where the country stood at the time. The year 1968 had been one of the truly traumatic years in all of American history. Two important leaders had been assassinated; the Democratic National Convention had been little short of a disaster; and many feared that the seams of American life were coming apart.

The tidal wave of social and cultural change that swept the United States between 1965 and 1969 was truly unprecedented. In four short years America had changed. Younger people railed against the “system.” Older people railed against the irresponsibility of the young. Middle-aged parents were appalled at the sudden change. How could their children, who had been so sweet and complacent in 1965, have become so aggressive by 1969? The answer is, of course, the Vietnam War. It divided the United States like no other conflict, before or since. Indeed, the Apollo program was started in turbulent times.

By 1969, the United States was truly divided between those who supported the war and those who would do almost anything to stop it. The Vietnam War and the race for space were both products of the 10 years preceding 1969. In both cases, Dwight Eisenhower had laid the early groundwork, and John F. Kennedy had plunged the country headfirst into the cause. In both cases, Lyndon B. Johnson saw no choice but to continue what had been started.

A revolution of a somewhat different kind came one night in February 1964, with the triumphant arrival in New York of The Beatles. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show transformed them overnight into one of the few British acts at the time to achieve enormous success in the United States. The so-called `British Invasion' was followed by an infusion of new musical talent from across the Atlantic: the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones and the Who. The invasion was by no means restricted to music. British movies, characters and television series were met with great enthusiasm Stateside.

The British Invasion, though, formed only part of a wider `counter-culture', which ran like a broad vein through the mid to late Sixties, encompassing demands for improved rights and freedoms for women, homosexuals and racial minorities. Rampant use of psychedelic drugs seemed to journey hand-in-hand with, and influence, the music, artwork, movies and attitudes of the time. Indeed, the excesses of the period prompted Jefferson Airplane cofounder Paul Kantner to quip: “If you can remember anything about the Sixties, you weren't really there”.

Only months after three American astronauts died in a launch pad fire and a Soviet cosmonaut plunged to his death when his parachute failed, one of the defining moments of this counterculture came with San Francisco's 1967 Summer of Love and the associated rise of the hippie movement. Two years later came Woodstock.

Another of the decade's most persistent themes will remain forever entrenched in human memory. After countless millennia spent staring up at the heavens and wondering what lay beyond the thin veil of our atmosphere, men – and, in 1963, a woman – finally broke free of their home planet. Some would spend many days circling Earth, others would open hatches and venture outside in pressurised space suits to work, still more would dock their spacecraft together and a few hardy souls would visit the Moon.

1968 was a bloody year not only for the Americans, but for the Eastern Bloc also. As Soviet and American astronauts space walked outside their Earth-circling ships and raced to put a man on the Moon, efforts to promote democracy in Czechoslovakia, came to nothing. The optimistic Prague reforms of Alexander Dubcek in the spring of 1968 raised such alarm that 250,000 Warsaw Pact troops and thousands of Soviet tanks rumbled into the country to stifle any attempt to create a new nation of pluralism, tolerance and improved human rights.

The invasion provoked widespread opposition both within Czechoslovakia – visibly expressed through the self immolation of student Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 – and from beyond, even from within the Soviet Union itself.

Three hundred thousand emigrations from Czechoslovakia to the west represented an exodus so high in number that it has not been seen since. Dubcek himself was forced from office to ensure that, in future, his country would subordinate its interests to those of the Eastern Bloc.

Elsewhere, decades of colonialism drew to an end as a handful of African countries finally achieved independence from European mastery; some evolving into stable democracies fit for the modern world, others degenerating into corrupt and despotic dictatorships.

Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969. Thousands of young people protested the inauguration, saying that Nixon would continue America’s downward spiral. Perhaps Nixon did want to remove U.S. troops from Vietnam, but he also felt the time was not right. To leave suddenly would seem like an admission of defeat. But there was an area in which Nixon could truly shine, with little cost to his administration or his policies. He could back the race for space and bask in the glory of what had been started 10 years ago. The Apollo program continued.

The next step in the space program was a mission to walk on the moon. Three men were chosen for this mission, including Neil A. Armstrong, who was selected commander for the flight. Edwin Eugene Aldrin (he later changed his legal name to “Buzz”) was second in command. Michael Collins was pilot for Apollo XI.

All three Apollo 11 astronauts knew that their mission was of paramount importance. John F. Kennedy had pledged that the United States would reach the moon by 1970, and President Nixon was committed to fulfilling the promise. There could be no mistakes in this great endeavor.

Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins blasted off from Cape Canaveral. Thousands of people came to watch the mighty boosters lift the rocket into the sky. Soon they were on their way to the moon. As the spacecraft neared the moon, the three astronauts separated. Armstrong and Aldrin floated into the lunar module, while Collins remained in the command module. Armstrong and Aldrin were in constant contact with mission control, which in turn was in constant contact with CBS News in New York City. The American public was finding out what was going on just moments after it had occurred. Neil Armstrong was the first human on the moon. The Russians were defeated.

Armstrong and Aldrin were down to only a small amount of fuel left in their tank when they landed on the moon. But then Armstrong sent off a message: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” People at mission control went crazy with jubilation. Walter Cronkite and Walter Schirra, who were relaying information to the American public on CBS, were as stunned and amazed as their listeners. The Americans had done it. They had fulfilled Kennedy’s pledge to land on the moon.

After they landed, the astronauts had not yet walked on the lunar surface. Three hours passed before that would happen. In that time, Armstrong and Aldrin made their final preparations. Long before, it had been decided that Armstrong would be the first man on the moon and that Aldrin would be second.

Viewers around the world watched as the hatch opened. Out stepped Armstrong, with his head turned back to the module and his feet very slowly moving down the ladder. As his foot moved from the last ladder rung to the lunar surface, Armstrong uttered his famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” People on Earth were delirious with joy.

Cronkite had narrated the news events of President Kennedy’s assassination and the tumultuous Democratic National Convention riots of 1968. One suspects he had longed for a moment like this, a moment of sheer joy, of good news. He announced to the eager viewers: “Armstrong is on the moon! Neil Armstrong, a 38-year-old American, standing on the surface of the moon! On this July twentieth, nineteen hundred and sixty-nine.” For a few precious minutes, hours even, no one talked about the “American” achievement. Instead this was a human achievement, the first time the small hands and feet of humans had reached another surface in space.

The 1969 landing on the moon was one of the great events of human history. Popular culture echoed the accomplishments that were happening in technology and science. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a burgeoning of new programs about space and man’s attempts to “conquer” it.

There was the ever-popular television series Lost in Space. There was Star Trek, with its assertion that Captain Kirk and his spaceship would go where no man had gone before. Star Trek would go on to be one of the world's largest media franchises, with later iterations capturing the hearts and minds of tens of millions of viewers.

Looming above all the others, there was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film came out in 1968 to rave reviews. Americans flocked to see this vision of the future, in which human technology clashed with primitive human emotions. Most compelling was the computer named Hal, who continually informed the astronauts of the statistics and probabilities of any event. Americans wondered if this was the future that travel to outer space would bring. And as they wondered, their world kept changing.

The race for space, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War were all happening at roughly the same time, and though the movements were distinct and separate from each other, jointly they seemed to herald a new age and time. At the beginning of the decade, Americans were thrilled by the race for space, ambivalent (at first) about the civil rights movement, and supportive of the war in Vietnam (at first). By 1970, however, attitudes had changed. By then, a majority of Americans supported the civil rights movement, and a majority were opposed to the continuing war in Vietnam. By the 1970s, the space race seemed to have lost its importance.

Political and military events—rather than scientific ones— claimed the public’s attention in the early 1970s. Nixon won a second presidential term in 1972, but he still had not figured out how to get the U.S. military out of Vietnam. The civil rights movement was still pressing forward, but it had been slowed by the death of its greatest leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Space seemed less important than before.

When Apollo XIII aimed for the moon just two years after the first landing there, the major news networks did not at first carry the mission live. They later picked up the story when the astronauts ran into serious trouble during the mission. Television producers defended their initial decision by saying that Americans were tired of hearing about space. Eventually the Apollo program would be cancelled.

During 1969, space exploration took center stage in the United States. Perhaps the events of that year, and those of the next few as well, can help to explain why humans did not go farther in their ventures into space. There were several later landings on the moon, but none of them created much excitement.

Americans seemed satisfied that their technological superiority had been demonstrated, and missions to the moon lost much of their urgency. This was not how NASA intended it to be. The scientists, engineers, and flight controllers believed that a moon landing was a great first step, one that would lead Americans to even greater accomplishments. Some people confidently predicted that Americans would next land on Mars.

Americans still had some interest in space, but in an abstract way. Having seen two men land on the moon and describe its surface, they no longer needed to know those technical details. Instead, they were interested in what Mars was like. And how about Jupiter? Manned flights to these distant places were out of the question. So the U.S. space program turned to unmanned flights, or probes. Like the Russians, NASA learned that the public did not care as much when people were not actually traveling to space.

A revolutionary reusable spacecraft known as the Space Shuttle would begin its tumultuous development and it was hoped that, instead of simply visiting the heavens, men would actually come to live there. By the end of the Seventies, as the Shuttle prepared for its maiden launch and promised access to space that was cheaper than ever before, a total of six flags and hundreds of bootprints would dot half a dozen lunar landing sites.

Nikita Khrushchev was now dead. The collective leadership that replaced him had been reduced to Leonid Brezhnev, who was just as interested in space as Khrushchev had been. But Brezhnev faced serious economic restraints in the 1970s. The Soviet Union was going broke, and there was much less money for space exploration than in the past. Then, too, Brezhnev wanted to improve relations with the United States and so it did not make sense to inflame tensions with another space race. The Russian public was as weary of space as were the Americans.

The 1970s are now known as a time of quiet unrest in the Soviet Union, a time when many Russians questioned the enormous expenses for the military when average people could not obtain a telephone or a car. And so, during this period, the Soviet Union and the United States were equally disinterested in space.

The `thaw' of de-Stalinisation which Khrushchev had overseen was steadily replaced with a period of socioeconomic stagnation under Brezhnev, which, ultimately, would pave the way for perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union.

Soviet cosmonauts would routinely spend six months at a time in orbit, hosting guests from other nations in their orbiting stations.

In 1986 NASA sent up the space shuttle Challenger from Cape Canaveral. Aboard were seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space. The shuttle exploded just six minutes after takeoff, and all seven died. The later investigation revealed bad judgment on NASA’s part, which caused many Americans to give up on the space program entirely.

NASA had moved too fast that day, and had gone ahead even though there was ice on parts of the launching pad.

In the autumn of 1989, the Soviet Union stood by and watched as the states that had for a long time made up the union—virtually all of Eastern Europe—overthrew Communist Party rule. By January 1, 1990, almost all the former Communist nations had become independent. The Iron Curtain was no more. There were many benefits to the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of Communism. American researchers began to learn information about the Soviet space program that had been kept secret for decades. But with the end of the cold war NASA funding continued to be reduced.

The space program of the United States took yet another blow. With the demise of the Soviet Union, it no longer seemed necessary to develop a missile shield in space, or even to keep astronauts in space at all. NASA funding continued to drop.

Those who had been born during the space-race era, roughly from 1957 to 1969, can look back with pride at the accomplishments of humans in outer space, but those achievements also brought about something unintended. People all over the world have come to realize how precious Earth is, that there is not—at least on the surface—any other planet that supports life. The space race was an incredibly exciting time. Millions of people still recall many of these great moments.

The promise of space remains unfulfilled. There are no colonies on Mars, no bases on the Moon. For the moment, space remains most poignant and most powerful in the imagination, which is where it began, way back when, with writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.

The Sixties were truly an inspirational, pivotal decade which shaped the future of space exploration. Lessons were learned which have much bearing on activities in orbit today and some continue to be relearned for the missions of the future. Yet they only represented the first few years of a human adventure which, to date, has spanned over five decades.