The Cold War is justifiably remembered as a dangerous and ongoing competition between the two superpowers across the entire political, economic and military spectrum. It could have ended in a catastrophic nuclear war that killed millions and effectively gutted both nations and their allies. And, indeed, it provoked long wars in Korea and Vietnam and deadly repression in Eastern Europe.
But in one fundamentally important respect, the Cold War was a good war. The competition got Earthlings off their home planet and onto another world for the first time. It’s a feat that will be remembered and celebrated Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Sea of Tranquility in a lunar module appropriately called Eagle, part of the Apollo program. It was a flight that finally validated what Jules Verne had prophesied more than a century earlier in “From the Earth to the Moon.”
Apollo officially was a program that would send three astronauts to the moon for scientific purposes and to fulfill what was taken to be humankind’s manifest destiny to spread out and colonize other worlds. In fact, it was authorized by President John F. Kennedy, an intensively competitive man, as a response to three successive and spectacular Soviet achievements in space: Sputnik, which started the Space Age, and the flights of Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, the first man and woman to make it to orbit.
The Red Army had been widely respected by many Americans since the Second World War, but that nation was also considered to be a tyrannical behemoth with its infamous gulags and whose stereotypical male citizens were generally — and incorrectly — taken to be bearded peasants who got drunk on vodka and danced the kazatsky and whose wives existed only to breed.
But the combination of a ruthless dictatorship, an ignorant and powerless citizenry, a landmass that stretched across 11 time zones, an army so powerful that it had defeated the Third Reich, nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles and a space program that gave it the potential capability to get cosmonauts to the moon made the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics a clear menace to many Westerners, including millions of Americans. Some in the government and in think tanks theorized that Soviet ballistic missiles on the moon would give it control of Earth.
Therefore, it seemed imperative to get Americans to the moon first. And that is what happened on July 20, 1969, when Armstrong and Aldrin alighted on the moon while Michael Collins circled overhead in the spacecraft that would get them home.
All the world savored the monumentally important event, as Armstrong climbed the ladder and proclaimed “That’s one first step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” The reference to mankind notwithstanding, the flag they planted was Old Glory, not a U.N. banner. The mission nevertheless was thoroughly reported around this world (though not in the sore-loser Soviet Union) as its inhabitants from Montana to Mongolia savored it on the radio and live and in color on television. There was a ticker tape parade up Fifth Avenue, President Richard M. Nixon conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom on the three heroic astronauts at a ceremony in Los Angeles and there was adulation around the United States and elsewhere for what the intrepid men from Planet Earth had accomplished.
Then, suddenly, it was over.
There was an expression in vaudeville, a warning to performers: “Never follow a dog act,” which was considered to be theatrical talent’s most difficult and impressive feat. That first manned landing on the moon was the space agency’s dog act, and neither Apollo 12, nor those that followed could match it where public interest was concerned. As a result, NASA canceled Apollo 18, 19 and 20, the last three missions. It was the end of the program.
That leaves the International Space Station, whose purpose is to train spacefarers for long-duration missions and see how they react to those missions physically and mentally. The long-duration mission that NASA and other participants had in mind — Mars — is in limbo, however, because there is no apparently dangerous competitor and, therefore, no funding.
But there is, in fact, one enduring competitor: Mother Nature, who sees to it that this fragile incubator of life — which is quickly overheating — lives in an extremely dangerous, asteroid-infested, neighborhood. Aldrin and John Barnes provided the means to salvation in their novel, Encounter With Tiber, when they had the commander of a multi-generational, intergalactic spaceship justify the mission to her crew this way: “There’s not a place in the universe that’s safe forever; the universe is telling us, ‘Spread out, or wait around and die.’ ”
The ability to compete victoriously — to win — clearly is as crucially important in space as it is on Earth.
William E. Burrows, a veteran journalist, is the author of “The New Ocean,” “The Asteroid Threat” and “The Survival Imperative,” among other titles.