Saturday, July 9, 2011

Space Race

Yesterday's final launch of the space shuttle reminded me of the first space launch with a manned capsule by the United States. It was in May of 1961, a mere 3 weeks after the Soviets had put their first man in space with Yuri Gagarin's flight. Both flights were breakthroughs. Literally.

The idea was to see if a man could ride a rocket, puncture the atmosphere, and then return to earth alive. This was really an intense moment for our nation as we tried to catch up to the Soviets in a race to put the first man on the moon. With the score at 1-0, in favor of the Soviets, this was a riveting event. With 2 explosions of Redstone rockets already behind us, no one knew just what would happen that morning when Alan B. Shepard took off for his 15 minute flight.

I was on a "split" session for 1st grade, meaning that the school was overcrowded, making it necessary to have a morning class, and then an afternoon one. I was lucky. I had the afternoon class, which meant that I got to watch the liftoff, as well as the subsequent recovery of the capsule at sea.

For the next 8 years we watched with bated breath as the rockets kept going up; bigger and better rockets, carrying bigger and better capsules. There was the first orbit by John Glenn in a single man Mercury capsule, followed by the 2 man Gemini program, which gave us the first "space walk", proving that a man could perform simple tasks in a weightless environment. Then came the 3 man Apollo program, our final stage in reaching the moon.

Who can ever forget that 1968 Christmas Eve orbit of the moon, with the reading of Genisis? And 7 months later, in July of 1969, we walked the surface of that planet. As I watched yesterday's lift off of the last shuttle I was filled with mixed feelings. I'm not sure what real benefits we actually derived from the space program. But I'm sure glad we did it.

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