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Professor Donald Elder. EVENTS in American History: The Moon Landing

Dec 8, 2016 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder. EVENTS in American History: The Moon Landing

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, you are uniquely situated to respond to questions about the American Space Race and our moon landing and our ventures into the stars. Tell us about your endeavors and appointments regarding our space race.

Only weeks after I started Kindergarten in 1957, the Space Age began with the launching of the first satellite (named Sputnik) into outer space. Other satellites soon joined Sputnik in orbit around the Earth, and a few years later the Soviet Union sent a human into outer space. The United States soon followed suit, putting Alan Shepard into outer space in May of 1961. These events fascinated me, and gave me a life-long interest in the subject. When I began my graduate studies in 1983, I therefore decided to focus on the history of the Space Age. Specifically, in my dissertation I examined the impact of the first telecommunication satellite in a broad context. Turning that work into a monograph that I titled Out From Behind the Eight-Ball: A History of Project Echo, I had the good fortune of having that work published in 1995. Upon publication, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics gave my book its award for the outstanding work on the subject of space history. That recognition led to an invitation by the American Astronautical Society to become a member of its History Committee, a position that I have held since 1995. In 2009, Governor Bill Richardson appointed me to the New Mexico Museum of Space History Commission; the current governor of New Mexico has since reappointed me twice to that body. Finally, earlier this year the International Academy of Astronautics asked me to become a member of its History Committee. I began my duties with that group on September 1, 2016, and will serve in that capacity for two years. My early interest in the Space Age, then, has clearly given me a wealth of professional opportunities.

2) I guess one of the biggest events in American History was our landing on the Moon.

You and I lived through it, but for other generations, when exactly did it occur and what were a few singular events that led up to it? In 1865, the French author Jules Verne wrote a novel in which he described an effort to put humans on the moon. With the publication of his From the Earth to the Moon, a number of people began to explore the possibility of bringing such an idea to fruition. No propulsion system in existence at the time could generate enough power to accomplish such a task, but in the early twentieth century an American named Robert Goddard suggested that liquid-fueled rockets might prove up to that task. His work inspired a physicist named Hermann Oberth to build liquid fueled rockets on his own, and a young engineer named Wernher von Braun assisted him in these efforts. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he employed both Oberth and von Braun to develop liquid-fueled rockets for military use. Von Braun later claimed that he agreed only because such employment gave him the opportunity to work on rockets that he could use one day to send humans to the moon. After the war, the United States government offered him the chance to work on American rockets, and as a result he began work at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. While developing rockets for the military, von Braun continued to lobby for support for a moon landing. Other enthusiasts, including Walt Disney, gave the idea favorable mention. Nothing came of this, however, until John F. Kennedy became president. Hoping to prove American superiority in the realm of outer space, Kennedy announced in 1961 that the United States would place a human on the moon by the end of the decade. Although many doubted the possibility of such a feat, the United States did indeed land Neil Armstrong on the moon in July of 1969, well ahead of Kennedy’s self-imposed deadline.

3) Everyone seems to remember Neil Armstrong, but who else was there? And can you comment about the people on the ground who also made this happen?

When Kennedy announced his goal of placing a person on the moon, the United States had already succeeded in placing Alan Shepard into outer space. The newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration launched five more single astronaut missions (known as Project Mercury), taking Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, and Gordon Cooper into outer space. NASA then began a series of two astronaut launches (known as Project Gemini), which concluded in 1966. Because of the success of Gemini, NASA felt confident in early 1967 that it could start its three astronaut program (known as Project Apollo). Tragically, three Apollo astronauts—Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White—died during a test of the Apollo launch system. This set the program back for a lengthy period of time, but after a number of successful tests, a crew commanded by Wally Schirra went into outer space in the Apollo Seven mission. Three more practice missions took place, and finally in July of 1969 NASA felt confident that it could send a crew to the moon. Neil Armstrong would command the mission, with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as the other crew men. Since the beginning of the manned spaceflight program, Christopher Kraft had served as the flight director on the ground, but at the conclusion of the Mercury program Gene Kranz took over those duties. He therefore had the responsibility of guiding the Apollo 11 mission from the NASA facility in Houston. In a similar fashion, James E. Webb had served as the NASA Administrator from Kennedy’s announcement about putting a person on the moon until October of 1968. Thomas O. Paine replaced him at that time, and as such he oversaw the Apollo 11 mission. While the moon landing involved the efforts of thousands of people directly and indirectly, the few individuals maned in the above passage will forever be linked with that endeavor.

4) The immediate impact in the US was certainly sensational, but how did it impact the rest of the world?

The successful landing on the moon in July of 1969 had both immediate and long-term effects on the United States and the world. In the short term, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk gave the United States a much needed morale boost after the numerous catastrophes that had befallen the nation in 1968. Had the United States suffered a setback in the Space Race at that point in time, the nation might not have had the resolve to continue to try to win the competition known as the Cold War. Five more missions to the moon cemented the image of the United States as the world’s leader in science and technology. Ironically, however, the success that NASA achieved would also spell the eventual end of the nation’s manned spaceflight program. Once the nation had proven its superiority to the Soviet Union in the realm of outer space, President Nixon and the US Congress saw no need to continue the massive expenditures necessary to send astronauts to the moon. As a consequence, they slashed NASA’s budget, only keeping plans for a reusable space shuttle. But when that system did not prove economically viable, the federal government ended funding for it as well. Ironically, American astronauts who go into outer space these days ride to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft.

5) This singular event really marked our venture to the stars. What have been some other singular space events and are there books you would recommend about our space exploration journey?

As we have seen, the launching of the first satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 ushered in the Space Age. In a similar fashion, the Soviets also placed the first human into outer space in 1961. Our first triumph came in 1969 with the landing on the moon, and 12 years later we placed a space station known as Skylab into orbit. A decade later, NASA began regular space shuttle operations. Surprisingly, there is no book that covers the entire history of the Space Age, let alone the American contributions in that realm. But for excellent treatments of various aspects of the Space Age, I would recommend: Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon, Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth, Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Space Program, Gene Kranz, Failure Is Not An Option, and Asif Siddiqi, Challenge To Apollo. I would recommend my book, but that would be presumptuous!

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