Saturday, August 26, 2006

Launching the Enterprise

Though the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Mercury astronaut program were created in the final Eisenhower years, the efforts to send a man into space didn’t reach fruition until Kennedy was in office. Both the Russians and Americans conducted numerous launchings and tests of vehicles, sending up animals and instruments, trying to return and recover them on earth. Then in April 1961, the first human to orbit the earth was the Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. His vehicle weighed five tons—twice as heavy as the planned Mercury capsules.

But in early May, Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space. It was a short, sub-orbital flight, but every aspect of it was televised, and the adventure galvanized the country. Shepard received Manhattan’s largest ticker-tape parade to date, and met the President and First Lady at the White House.

Then in late May, Kennedy went to Congress with an astounding proposal: he dedicated the U.S. to land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth, by the end of the 1960s. The American space program hadn’t yet placed a human or even a large payload into orbit. Yet though Congress was skeptical, the country was excited. They were even more thrilled when, after Virgil Grissom’s sub-orbital flight in July, the following February John Glenn orbited the earth three times, again with full television coverage. His parade broke Shepard’s record. He was the first American hero of the space age. President Kennedy welcomed him to the White House, referring to space as “the new ocean…and I believe the United States must sail on it…”
While there was no longer an immediate military reason for an expanded space program (the U.S. had missiles that could carry the now compact hydrogen bombs to distant targets), there was national prestige involved. In his remarks to Congress proposing what would become the Apollo program, Kennedy spoke of the space efforts of both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and “the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere” as a challenge to prove that a free people could achieve great ends. “But this is not merely a race, “ he said. “Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

While he praised recent U.S. efforts, he asserted: “Now it is time to take longer strides--time for a great new American enterprise--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.”

But just spending more money on space technology wasn’t going to be enough. He said this commitment required an unprecedented “degree of dedication, organization and discipline.” of selflessness and working together. It could not be accomplished “unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”

But the real key to the Kennedy years was in the shift of mood and expectation in feeling and attitude, hopes and expectations about the future. Since at least the end of the 19th century, when H.G. Wells was creating both science fiction and futurism, and when people in general were getting used to the idea of large-scale change, the stories about the future gravitated towards one extreme or the other: towards new heavens or new hells, dreams or nightmares, utopia or oblivion.

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