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Man on the Moon

Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 1999; Page H1

July 1969: The moon rocket, towering 37 stories tall on its pad, began its skyward climb with 10 million pounds of thrust. Less than half a second later, a pump in one of its 43 engines drew in a stray metal shaving and blew up. The entire booster fell back to Earth and exploded with the force of a small nuclear bomb, wiping out the launch complex on the remote steppes of Central Asia. The catastrophe, unknown to most of the world but monitored by U.S. intelligence, effectively ended the "space race" for the Soviet Union.

Thirteen days after the failure of the Soviet N-1 rocket, half a world away, other men in other control rooms watched in an agony of suspense as their own fire-breathing monster rumbled and roared to life on a Florida launch pad. This time, the rocket didn't falter. Three Americans were on their way to a historic lunar landing and-even though much of the competitive steam had puffed out of the race-a stunning victory for their side.

The public focus since then has been mostly on the technology, the science and the sheer human audacity of it all, but the driving force behind the project was geopolitical.

More than a decade earlier, on Oct. 4, 1957, Russian engineers had fired the first round in the battle for the new "high ground" with the launch of a seemingly inconsequential 184-pound sphere: a radio transmitter hooked up to a thermometer, powered by a pack of chemical batteries. Once in orbit, Earth's first artificial satellite, or Sputnik ("companion"), emitted a benign signal: "Beep, beep, beep. ..."

Yet to then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, entertaining guests at his ranch in the Texas hill country when he got the news, "in some new way, the sky seemed almost alien," he wrote later. Americans who had thought themselves technologically superior and safely isolated by two great oceans now suddenly felt vulnerable.

How could a primitive little space ball discombobulate a powerful nation? Science fiction enthusiasts had long dreamed of space travel for peaceful purposes, but the real Space Age dawned with more sinister meaning. Because Sputnik had been launched on an intercontinental ballistic missile, Soviet leaders hailed the feat as proof of their ability to deliver hydrogen bombs at will-and of the superiority of communism over democracy. Prowess in space emerged as a Cold War propaganda tool, with astronauts as surrogate combatants.

Even so, it wasn't until 1961, as the Soviets continued to taunt America with a string of "firsts" in space, that incoming President John F. Kennedy asked his vice president to find out quickly whether there was some way "we could win." As recommended by NASA and the Defense Department, Johnson proposed a lunar landing "to symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation ... part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War." On May 25, 1961, when Kennedy issued his call to do it before the decade was out, the entire American experience in human space flight totaled just 15 minutes and 28 seconds, the duration of Alan B. Shepard Jr.'s suborbital flight three weeks earlier.

Kennedy himself had second thoughts, in 1963 proposing to the United Nations a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. lunar project. But Johnson, succeeding the slain president, was determined to make the United States a leader in space. "The hope that rode on Apollo was the hope for human adequacy in the face of awful challenges," wrote Walter A. McDougall in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, "... The Heavens and the Earth."

But the sense of urgency drained from the space effort as the Soviets failed to keep up the pace of their own triumphs, and liberal advocates for the poor, the environment and other causes attacked the costs of the Apollo program (through 1972), which would amount to $120 billion in today's inflation-adjusted dollars.

But the push of people and machines toward the moon, for the moment, had an independent momentum. The program had mushroomed into one of the most complex undertakings in human history, engaging a work force of almost 500,000 people around the country. The fledgling American space program gradually built an understanding of new technologies and human reactions that space flight entails, through the six one-man flights of the Mercury program, which grew from suborbital to orbital missions up to 34 hours and 20 minutes duration, and the ten two-man flights of the Gemini series, which featured the first spacewalk, the first rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft, the first emergency landing, once reaching a (then) record altitude of 739 miles and extending mission duration up to almost 14 days.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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