We didn’t have a chance.
We were in a race to the moon and we tripped over our shoelaces getting out of the starting gate.
The Soviet Union was kicking our butts. They were piling up space-going firsts like they were empty vodka glasses.
• First satellite to orbit the earth — Sputnik, Oct. 4, 1957.
• First animal in space — A dog named Laika, Nov. 3, 1957.
• First human in space — Yuri Gagarin, April 12, 1961.
• First woman in space — Valentina Tereshkova, June 16, 1963.
• First space walk — Alexi Leonov, March 18, 1965.
And what were we doing all this time? Blowing up rockets, for one. We finally managed to launch our first satellite, Explorer I, Jan. 31, 1958. The first American in space, Al Shepard, came along May 5, 1961, and John Glenn became the first Yank to orbit the earth on Feb. 20, 1962.
We were making progress, but we were constantly playing catch-up with the Soviets. It seemed inevitable that they would beat us to the moon.
But on May 26, 1961, during a speech to Congress, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation, saying, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
There it was, the gauntlet was thrown down. It was put up or shut up time.
We didn’t have a chance.
During the same speech Kennedy recognized the “head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time.” He also acknowledged “the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes.”
In other words, we didn’t have a chance.
But then he said “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.” Then he spelled out the stakes. “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”
We did not want to see that red hammer and sickle flag flying over the moon. But we didn’t have a chance.
Or did we?
Americans don’t like to lose, don’t even like to consider the possibility of losing. So we dug in and got to work.
The Mercury program evolved into Gemini, and we started to catch up. But then the Soviets landed on the moon with an unmanned vehicle, Feb. 3, 1966. And that April an unmanned Soviet craft orbited the moon.
But we kept working, kept innovating, kept building bigger and better spacecraft, and kept putting men in harm’s way to further our national goals.
The Soviets had already paid a high price, losing one cosmonaut in training in 1961 and another on reentry in 1967. By 1967 we had already lost three astronauts in T-38 training crashes.
But then came Jan. 27, 1967, the day three space pioneers, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died in a flash fire in the Apollo 1 capsule on the launch pad during a training exercise.
Once again it seemed we didn’t have a chance.
We stepped back from manned missions and licked our wounds until Apollo 7 in October 1968. Then that December we went to bed Christmas Eve having watched a live TV broadcast from Apollo 8 orbiting the moon and we began to think that maybe we did have a chance.
And finally the big day came, July 16, 1969, launch day, 50 years ago this Tuesday, when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins rode 7.6 million pounds of thrust off the pad in Florida on their way to the moon.
And we held our breaths as the mission progressed, thinking about the words of Al Shepard, who so famously said, “It is a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
But it wasn’t just Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins up there on the way to the moon, it was all of us, a fact recognized by Kennedy in that long-ago speech, “In a very real sense it will not be one man going to the moon …. it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
And on July 20, 1969, a half century ago this Saturday, piloting an insect-looking spacecraft with exactly 2k computing power (about 1,500 times less than an iPhone 5s), Armstrong and Aldrin, after a few anxious moments trying to find a flat place to land after the chosen spot was found to be strewn with boulders and adjacent to a a large crater, landed on the moon.
The landing meant the U.S. had not only won the race to the moon and met Kennedy’s challenge, but also proved once again just what the American people can achieve when they set their minds to something.
Today space is all but forgotten as we ponder our earthly problems and conflicts. But the lasting message of Apollo 11 is no matter the challenge, no matter the odds, there is always a chance.