With Guts and Money, U.S. Caught Up to Soviets Beeping Sputnik Goaded a Nation

By Sawyer, Kathy | The Florida Times Union, July 18, 1999 | Go to article overview

With Guts and Money, U.S. Caught Up to Soviets Beeping Sputnik Goaded a Nation


Sawyer, Kathy, The Florida Times Union


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 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.

THE MOON OR BUST

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 President Kennedy asked his vice president to find out quickly whether there was some way "we could win." On May 25, 1961, when Kennedy issued his call for a lunar landing before the decade was out, the entire American experience in human spaceflight 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.-USSR lunar project. But Johnson, succeeding the slain president, was determined to make the United States a leader in space.

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 costs of the Apollo program through 1972 would amount to $120 billion in today's inflation-adjusted dollars. …

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