The future of the entire free world would thus be determined by the arms race, the space race, and ultimately the moon race that ensued. And in the dark days immediately following news of Sputnik, an American win was by no means assured.
Sunday July 20, 2008 will likely be a fairly typical summer day in America. People will get up, go to Church, and maybe hold a barbeque in the back yard. Perhaps the more industrious amongst us will wash the family car. Calmness, serenity, and above all, normality will rule the day. And in a way, that is an awful shame.
Thirty nine years ago on that date (also a Sunday), the nation was anything but normal. Americans huddled around their TV sets and radios, listening to the almost unintelligible exchange of technical jargon, watching crude network animations, trying desperately to comprehend the unfolding events a quarter of a million miles away. Few realized just how close the mission was to total failure, with only seconds of fuel remaining in the spacecraft.
Then, at 4:53 pm eastern time, after a heart-stopping momentary hush, an eight word message, crisp, clear, and easily discernible, crackled across the void of space and into the homes and businesses of anxiously awaiting Americans. Eight words that, from that day forward, might well have irrefutably defined the course of this nation, its history, and its legacy in terms of “before” and “after.” “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” In the aftermath of Neil Armstrong’s brief declaration, some aspects of life on earth would be changed forever.
During the following twenty one hours, a fantastic drama unfolded as Armstrong set foot on the moon, accompanied a few moments later by his co-pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. A crude black-and-white television transmission allowed earthlings to share in the occasion, as the astronauts collected samples, raised the American flag over lunar soil, and talked with the President via telephone from the Oval Office. Finally they launched their spacecraft back towards their awaiting colleague overhead for the journey home.
Back on earth, other forces, more typical of humanity in all of its futility and flailing, were working hard to undo the stunning success for America that was Apollo 11, along with everything patriotic and good that it represented. Modern academia vastly prefers instead to recall the summer of 1969 with remembrances of “Woodstock,” a four-day tribute to the self absorption and debauchery of the hippie and flower-child movement.
Even in the midst of the massive parades and celebrations that characterized America’s immediate response to the successful Apollo mission, its larger significance as a defining event of the Cold-War escaped the comprehension of many. During the years since, this aspect of the “Space Race” between America and the Soviet Union has been all but erased from consideration. Yet, as an event no less pivotal in its age than was the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II, the significance of Project Apollo cannot be overstated.
Ultimately, man’s journey to the moon entailed not just the skill and courage of the three astronauts who flew the mission, but rather was the summation of American technical expertise and commitment to the cause. Thus, the feats of Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin, and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins represented a pivotal moment in a life or death struggle against Soviet Russia for technological dominance of the world. It was in that realm, far more than in the arena of the traditional military battle, that the encounters of the Cold War would be fought, and its outcome decided.
Barely a dozen years prior, the gauntlet of this conflict had been thrown down by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. On October 4, 1957, the world was electrified by the Soviet announcement that it had successfully orbited the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1. Visible from earth, it sailed dispassionately through the night skies with a menacing silence that at once promised greater horizons for humanity, accompanied by the appalling threat that such a future might be realized in a world under the iron fisted dominion of the Soviet Union.
America’s technological superiority, unquestioned at the close of the Second World War as it ushered in the atomic age, was now seriously in jeopardy. Not only had the Soviets managed to appropriate the secrets of the atomic bomb within five years of its invention, with the advent of Sputnik and the advances in rocketry it represented, they were quite possibly equipped to deliver a nuclear warhead, via intercontinental ballistic missile, to selected targets within the United States.
The future of the entire free world would thus be determined by the arms race, the space race, and ultimately the moon race that ensued. And in the dark days immediately following news of Sputnik, an American win was by no means assured. In truth, the Soviets had every intention of beating America to the moon, having even chosen their premier Cosmonaut, Alexi Leonov, to fly the mission.
However, several catastrophic space-hardware failures during the 1960s eventually rendered their chances for success a virtual impossibility. Meanwhile, America had risen to the occasion, inspired by President John Kennedy’s momentous May 25, 1961 speech in which he challenged the nation to achieve a manned moon landing before the end of the decade.
Apollo 11, derided by the Soviets as technologically insignificant, excessively expensive and indifferent to the suffering of common citizens (an indictment immediately echoed by America’s leftists and eventually accepted and carried by the nation’s liberal media), was nonetheless the crowning jewel of that challenge.
So on that twentieth of July thirty nine years ago, America did indeed realize a decisive victory in the Cold War. American heroism and greatness was on display. Flags were flying then. And they should be flown every July 20 lest we ever forget.
Christopher G. Adamo is a resident of southeastern Wyoming and has been involved in state and local politics for many years. He writes for several prominent conservative websites, as has written for regional and national magazines. His contact information and article archives can be found at www.chrisadamo.com, and he can be followed on Twitter @CGAdamo.