You know your space program is in trouble when you're not sure whether one of your rockets just blew up. Americans go swoony when they talk about the romantic early days of space exploration, but what we forget is that a lot of that period was less romance than pratfall. Our worst pie-in-the-face moment came on Dec. 6, 1957, the day we attempted to launch our first satellite.
The Vanguard rocket that the U.S. hoped to send up that morning was a modest, --pencil-like thing, but in what was already the American fashion, we switched on the TV cameras to let the world watch the show. A show is what they got. The rocket flew for a total of 2 sec.--and traveled 4 ft. (1.2 m)--before eating itself in a fiery explosion. The global hilarity was immediate, but U.S. officials--who had much to learn about the science of rocketry but clearly knew plenty about the art of spin--would have none of it. Asked to explain the cause of the explosion, a spokesman denied one had taken place. Asked what had occurred on the pad, he answered, "Rapid burning."
The event that occasioned this headlong dash onto a banana peel was the launch just two months earlier--and 50 years ago this October--of Russia's fabled Sputnik, the world's first satellite. The U.S. reacted to the event as any mature, technologically savvy nation would, which is to say we lost our marbles. The Russians had seized the high ground of space, we cried. It would be only a matter of time before they were gliding overhead, dropping bombs on us like overripe fruit from a highway overpass.
That risk turned out to be a wee overstated, and a half-century on, Americans are marking Sputnik's birthday as enthusiastically as the rest of the world--actually, a little more. What we have to celebrate, after all, is not just what the Soviets achieved but the way we reacted to it--at least after we got hold of ourselves. Moscow, we figured, was already scary enough, what with Eastern Europe under lockdown and a bristle of missiles protecting it. There was no reason to make the bad guys badder; instead, we ought to make ourselves smarter.
Within a month, President Dwight Eisenhower named MIT President James Killian his science adviser and told him to put the nation on the scientific equivalent of a war footing. The government stressed math and science in public schools, steered college students toward science degrees, created a National Aeronautics and Space Administration and pointed it generally spaceward. Spaceward is where the country went.
It's impossible to resist comparing the America of 1957 with the America of 2007-- and finding the modern version wanting. There was a clear-eyed quality to the U.S. commitment to space and a frank understanding of what it would take to get there. This wasn't an effort built on tax credits for willing industries or bipartisan earmarking. It wasn't a program financed by cooked books or off-budget accounting. Most important, it was sustained by appealing not to what scared us but rather to what elevated us. There's no need to invoke WMD when you've got MIT.
In a nativist time like ours, it's hard to imagine a national effort so peopled by foreigners--German expat Wernher von Braun building our rockets, New Zealand immigrant William Pickering heading our unmanned program. In a time of flash-paper attention spans, it's similarly hard to picture any agency surviving the setbacks NASA did. Ranger 7 was the first unmanned U.S. ship to land on the moon--following the sequential failures of Rangers 1 through 6. Think that program would make it as far as Ranger 4 today?
Most remarkable, though, was the odd humility that marked our space enterprise. Yes, in the historical mirror, some of it seems overdone: the astronauts in silver space suits (when military green would have served just as well), shedding names like Virgil and Donald and Gordon for Gus and Deke and Gordo. But that was done with a cultural wink, one that belied the workmanlike ethos beneath the effort.
In that most American of plays, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, father of two layabout sons, is stunned to find that his neighbor's boy is arguing a case before the Supreme Court and hasn't mentioned it. "He don't have to," his neighbor answers. "He's gonna do it." A coda to that idea is offered in the elegiac new documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. One of the scenes shows the men of Mission Control lighting cigars after the 1969 splashdown of Apollo 11. Behind them, on a control room viewing screen, two words are projected: TASK ACCOMPLISHED. That may be a less triumphal phrasing than "mission," but whatever you call it, Americans knew enough not to boast about a thing until we had done it.