50 years after the first moon landing, former Austinite's book details our up-and-down relationship with space
Can you name the humans floating in space right now?
Unless you identified Expedition 60 Commander Alexey Ovchinin of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, along with NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch, you are like many Americans. You are blithely unaware who, at any given time, populates the International Space Station with its extended missions that would have been unimaginable in 1957 when the Soviet unmanned satellite Sputnik launched the “Space Race” that eventually put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in July 1969.
According to the NASAExplores blog, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, Alexander Skvortsov of Roscosmos and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency are scheduled to join the current crew on July 20 — the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
While the media for years covered every lift-off and splash-down in breathless detail, during the past few decades, only the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003 drew the intense media attention given to space travel during the 1960s, when Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space in 1961 and John Glenn the first to orbit the Earth in 1962.
“The biggest drop-off in public interest was right after Apollo 11,” says former Austinite James Donovan, author of “Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11,” one of several new books that deal with the moon landing. “I suppose that was only natural, since the space program had been framed as a race to land on the moon. Once we did that, the Space Race was over, for all intents and purposes. There was no more suspense about whether we could do it or would do it.”
While many Americans age 60 or older can remember precisely where they were when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon — my father wept openly at a beach house not far from the location of the mission control crew in Houston, which unsettled his six children — this country’s love affair with spaceflight has been bumpy at best.
“Until the mid-1950s, anyone who talked of going into space was considered a crackpot,” says Donovan, an author and literary agent who decades ago worked at the much-missed Congress Avenue Books downtown. “Only science fiction writers and readers dared venture there, and even they were looked upon as a bit odd by the average American, who viewed space exploration as Buck Rogers silliness.”
Attitudes began to change in the ‘50s, Donovan says, largely because of the efforts of two German immigrants —Wernher von Braun, who had run the Nazis' V-2 program and now led the U.S. Army's missile development, which was only for military use, and Willy Ley, a science writer. Ley had been writing scientific articles, mostly about space exploration and rockets, since 1937. He had been publishing books on rockets since 1944. Those include “The Conquest of Space” (1949) and “Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel” (1957).
Meanwhile, Von Braun wrote a series of articles about space travel for the popular magazine Collier's in 1952, with titles such as "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" He also worked with Walt Disney on three television specials that were hugely popular.
“These two more than anyone were the reason space travel began to be taken seriously in the mid-1950s,” Donovan says. “By the time of Sputnik in October 1957, most Americans were beginning to take space travel seriously.”
But what really hurdled Americans toward space can be boiled down to that one word: “Sputnik.”
“The American public was alarmed by the news that our enemy in the Cold War, the USSR, had successfully launched the first artificial satellite,” Donovan says. “It was partly due to shock, but it was also a blow to our collective ego — wasn’t the U.S the superior in science and technology? Hadn’t we split the atom and created the nuclear bomb that had ended the war?”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t see Sputnik as a threat to our national security, but the Democratic Congress, led by then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, saw an issue it could win with.
“The press exacerbated it,” Donovan says. “But there really was a need to worry — especially a month later, when the Soviets launched Sputnik 2. The first Sputnik only weighed 174 pounds. The second weighed 1,121 pounds, heavier than a nuclear warhead. That made it abundantly clear that the enemy could now reach us with an A-bomb.”
So Americans got in the game with Explorer 1, launched into orbit on Jan. 31, 1958. In general, people did not pay much attention to the early flights with primates and other animals, including Austin’s own “Sam the Space Monkey,” the Indian rhesus monkey born and raised at what is now the J.J. Pickle Research Campus near the Domain.
“They didn’t care about the monkeys,” Donovan confirms. “But they were fascinated by these men who had volunteered to strap themselves atop rockets built to deliver nuclear warheads and allow themselves to be blasted into space — and these rockets blew up quite frequently.”
Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, and his 15-minute ballistic ride fed the American public’s appetite for more.
On May 25, 1961, three weeks after Shepard’s successful mission, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and threw down a stunning challenge: “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 Earth.”
“That commitment to finish the job by the end of the decade was taken very seriously by everyone involved,” Donovan says. “Kennedy’s death didn’t weaken that commitment. The space program had actually been Johnson’s idea even more than Kennedy’s, so he felt very protective of it. He loved having the astronauts out to his Hill Country ranch.”
For good reason is the spot south of Houston designed for human spaceflight training, research and flight control called the Johnson Space Center.
Shepard’s flight was soon overshadowed by the Feb. 20, 1962, mission of John Glenn.
“He orbited the Earth three times and survived a potential life-ending threat during re-entry,” Donovan says. “Millions of Americans prayed for him, and when he made it back in one piece, he became a national hero, his fame far eclipsing Shepard’s."
Donovan’s book shares telling profiles of each of the astronauts and their managers, along, of course, with the scientists and engineers. Americans, however, are not really aware of those — other than Glenn and Armstrong — in the same way.
“Toward the end of the 1960s, when Apollo was rolling along with frequent missions, some Americans might have had an idea who a few of them were,” Donovan says. “Gene Kranz, for instance, the crewcut flight director who wore a different embroidered vest for every mission, and Chris Kraft, his boss, who pretty much created Mission Control as we know it — he was on the cover of Time magazine. But the public was most fascinated by the men who risked their lives being blasted into space — the astronauts.”
The first decade of American manned flight was remarkably unmarred by tragedy, but the nation stood still in on Jan. 27, 1967, when a fire on Apollo 1 killed all three crew members — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — and destroyed the command module.
“It almost resulted in the cancellation of the manned space program,” Donovan says. “People were especially shocked that it happened on the ground, during what was expected to be a routine dress rehearsal. But it resulted in a safer spacecraft — the command module itself underwent 1,300 changes — and a safer program overall.”
Donovan’s account of Apollo 11 is a breath-stopping page-turner. Yet the public at the time was not glued to each turn in the drama.
“The vast majority of Americans weren’t aware of how hazardous the lunar landing really was,” Donovan says. “After the Apollo 1 tragedy, NASA downplayed any difficulty or danger, and few outside Mission Control fully understood what was going on, but it was unbelievably thrilling anyway. Landing a strange-looking spaceship — one that had never been landed anywhere — on another world, and in one-sixth gravity and in the hostile vacuum of space? That was more than enough excitement right there, even with no knowledge of the alarms going off and fuel running low.”
So given all the ample science fiction and pop culture around space exploration — the TV series “Star Trek” debuted in 1966, and the genre has grown exponentially ever since — along with the boom in private space efforts, why don’t Americans pay more attention to the real astronauts in space?
“Part of the problem was that NASA got so good at manned space travel that they made it look easy — until other tragedies happened,” Donovan says. “It’s human nature to crane our necks at a deadly accident, and the media’s fascination with death only reflects that. But there’s more interest in spaceflight today than there has been in half a century. I’m confident that young people today — maybe even middle-aged folks — will be around to see humans walking on Mars, and maybe even on an asteroid, or on another planet’s moon. It’s a wonderful time to be alive if you like space travel.”
MORE ON APOLLO 11 AND THE SPACE RACE
Meet the Austin man who was a Navy photographer assigned to cover Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 if things went wrong during re-entry. Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.
MORE ON THE SPACE RACE
“American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race” by Douglas Brinkley (Harper)
“Apollo 11: The Inside Story” by David Whitehouse (Icon Books)
“Chasing the Moon” by Robert Stone and Alan Andres (Ballantine Books)
“Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings” by Jay Barbee, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton (Open Road Media)
“One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon” by Charles Fishman (Simon & Schuster)
“Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11” by James Donovan (Little, Brown)
"Hidden Figures": The story of three African American women at NASA — Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — who played key roles in getting John Glenn into orbit. Based on the book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race" by Margot Lee Shetterly.
“Apollo 11: The IMAX Experience,” directed by Todd Douglas Miller (bonus: much of this documentary does without voiceover narration)
“Apollo 13,” directed by Ron Howard (based on a book by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, this 1995 hit had both suspense and technical accuracy)
“The Right Stuff,” directed by Philip Kaufman (this 1983 film based on the Tom Wolfe book remains memorable for its spirited portrayals of the Mercury astronauts)