It was 1945, and World War II was, at last, ending. Weary American GIs were returning home from combat in Europe and the Pacific. Across four years, over 16 million Americans had served worldwide, more than 400,000 had died. (By comparison, the U.S. suffered 58,000 deaths in Vietnam.)
Conservative estimates put the total casualty count from WWII at 50 million (yes, that’s with an “m”). Across the world, cities lay in ruin. In response, the United States embarked upon the Marshall Plan in Western Europe and a similar plan in Japan. These massive efforts to rebuild many of the shattered parts of the world still stand today among the most noble of American initiatives. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was lowering what Winston Churchhill would describe as an “Iron Curtain” across much of what had been a free Europe before WWII ignited. The Soviets were beginning their own but very different plan for dealing with the aftermath of WWII in nations that lay behind a line on a map.
Importantly, on both sides of that line on a map, there were the remnants of the Nazi advanced weapons programs. One of which had enabled Adolf Hitler to rain V-2 ballistic missiles onto allied cities during the latter part of the war.
Already you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the American Space program. As unlikely as it may seem, sown in the chaos wrought by WWII and its aftermath were the seeds of the U.S. and Russian Space Race. That race lasted for for decades, and remnants of it are still visible today.
Read on to discover an incredible story.
The Red Scare
In 1950, a mere 5 years after the end of WWII, a war-weary world watched in disbelief as war erupted on the Korean peninsula. It was the first major conflict fought after the end of WWII, and the first large-scale clash between Communist and Non-Communist forces. The idea of America and the free West facing an existential threat from the communist world was well on its way to shaping our world for the next forty years. At the front of the Communist world, often referred to as “red” for the color of the Soviet Union’s flag, stood Russia.
1953 saw the Korean conflict paused by a cease-fire, but by then, the Cold War was raging and a distressing fear was settling in over the everyday routines of Americans. The term “Red Scare” became a means of describing the fear that hung over much of America. Think or Google “Duck and Cover.”
The Race Begins
The Cold War took a terrifying turn on October 4th, 1957, as Americans awoke and heard an eery sound from the sky. “Beep-Beep-Beep.” “Beep-Beep-Beep.” Striking a chord of terror in many, the sound was coming from an unseen machine known as ‘Sputnik 1’ circling hundreds of miles overhead. 163 million Americans soon learned that machine circling over their heads and in Earth orbit had been put there by the Russians. Was it a weapon? Was there a nuclear warhead hovering over New York City, ready to kill millions of Americans without warning? Such questions aside, the Russians had beaten America into space.
With little warning, the Space Race had begun, and innate fear and national pride both would fuel it for the next 25 years.
Let There Be NASA
America soon responded on multiple fronts to the clear threat posed by Russia and Sputnik 1, In January 1958, after several failed attempts, it launched Explorer 1. In another response, the U.S. government moved to review and reorganize its fledgling space and missile program. Because of those efforts, in early 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation called the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Among other things, it created a consolidated civilian space and missile program and an agency to head that program. As he threw that switch launching the agency known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) and all Americans with it onto a journey into space, one wonders if he knew what a ride it would be.
The Beautiful Arc
NASA opened its doors on October 1, 1958, nigh on 60 years ago.
The arc it has since traced includes many firsts, a few seconds and some playing catchup. It traverses both manned and unmanned programs, earth science, planetary science, and cosmological science. There was the Apollo-Soyuz mission, Skylab and now the International Space Station. The heartbreaking tragedies of Apollo 1, and the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia. The triumph of the fabulous Hubble Space Telescope. The transformation from the Original 7 and “The Right Stuff,” to the multicultural NASA astronaut corps of today. And next year will bring the 50th anniversary of the historic and epical Apollo 11 manned lunar landing, during which Neil Armstrong first put mankind’s footprints onto the moon’s pale dusty surface. Footprints which today still look down up our Earth from a quarter million miles away, and mark man’s deepest yet journey into outer space.
Next up – Lost in Space: Part 2 Americans in Space