The Most Important Race Of All
Forgive me while I veer slightly from the usual subjects involving IndyCar racing, in order to recognize the anniversary of what I consider to be man’s greatest achievement in my lifetime. Today marks the fortieth anniversary of man’s landing on the surface of the moon.
For those that have been with this blog from day one, you’ll recall that I listed Alan B. Shepard as one of my heroes. The early period of the U.S. Space Program, the space race, is another one of my passions — besides IndyCar racing. They were both intertwined in the early days of the space program. 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann had a close relationship with most of the original seven astronauts. In 1966, Rathmann, along with astronauts Gus Grissom and Gordon Cooper, created GCR Racing with Lee Roy Yarbrough as their driver for the Indy 500. He did not make the field. In a way, the space program and IndyCar racing are very much alike. They both involve insanely high rates of speed. Both require an enormous amount of courage. Plus, they may have both seen their best days in the sixties.
I was too young to remember when Alan Shepard climbed aboard Freedom 7, the tiny Mercury capsule that sat aboard the underpowered Redstone rocket, in May of 1961. The Soviets had already beaten the Americans into space by successfully launching a cosmonaut into orbit three weeks earlier. The pressure was on for the Americans to do SOMETHING to show the world that we were not falling behind. Shepard was not launched into orbit. The Redstone rocket didn’t have the power to get him there. However, Alan Shepard became a national hero as he pushed all elements of common-sense aside and rode atop an explosive column of unproven technology. He rode beyond the realms of the atmosphere, to escape the grasp of gravity. Then, just fifteen minutes later – he rode as a helpless passenger as his craft splashed downrange into the Atlantic after a brief sub-orbital flight.
NASA and I were both born within ten days of each other. In fact, I barely have any personal recollection of the Mercury program. I can vaguely remember watching some of it on television, but my first realization as to what was going on was during the Gemini program, when the space race was already in full swing. I clearly remember watching Ed White’s historic walk in space, but couldn’t figure out why they called it a space walk since I saw no walking going on. I remember when Gemini 6 & 7 had their space rendezvous. I thought that was the greatest thing to have two capsules looking at each other in outer space.
My brothers made me keenly aware of the dangers of space travel and it became reality in 1967, when Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee became the first Americans to die in the space program, even though they died in a capsule fire on the ground during a training exercise for the unflown Apollo program that was designed to take man to the moon. As an eight year-old, I couldn’t understand how a training exercise on the ground could kill anyone – especially anyone as brave as these men were. While AJ Foyt was winning his third Indy 500, NASA was trying to figure out what had happened just four months earlier.
It took a little more than a year and a half, but Apollo finally flew. Wally Schirra led the three-man crew aboard Apollo 7. This was strictly a test-flight and would not leave earth’s orbit. The three-man Apollo capsule rode atop the smaller Saturn 1-B rocket. I was in fifth grade by then and they wheeled a giant black & white TV into our classroom for us to watch the historic coverage.
Two months later, Apollo 8 lifted off atop the gigantic Saturn V rocket with the moon as its destination. This was the first time that man would leave earth’s orbit. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders rode in the tiny Apollo capsule for three days before reaching the moon. Once there, they orbited the moon ten times for twenty hours over Christmas Eve. There, they had the nerve to be so politically incorrect as to read from the book of Genesis. They would probably be taken to task for pulling such a stunt today over the “holidays”…but I digress.
When they returned, it proved that humans could sustain the trials of long-distance space travel. Two more missions proved that the Lunar Module, the craft that would actually take two men to the surface of the moon was up to the task. It was. Everything was on schedule for the first mission to land humans on a surface that was not earth.
On July 16th, three Americans blasted from Cape Canaveral aboard the massive Saturn V. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins became national heroes before they even left the earth. Forty years ago today, they reached their destiny.
I will never forget watching the coverage on CBS on that Sunday afternoon. As we listened to the late Walter Cronkite narrate the primitive cartoon graphics that simulated what was happening, we were all awe-struck. The moment was not lost on an eleven year-old. That evening we watched live video, fuzzy as it was, show us live coverage of Neil Armstrong taking those historic first steps. That was in the days before VCR’s, but my father took photographs of the television screen to record the moment. He even went outside and took pictures of the moon from our patio. It was a special night.
The astronauts returned and received what they should have – a hero’s welcome. The nation rallied together to honor, not only these brave men, but also everyone in the space program that had worked so hard for the last ten years for this moment. Every astronaut, computer technician and NASA janitor was thanked on this occasion for making this possible. This was the ultimate example of teamwork. It was quite a time. First, Mario Andretti gets his only Indy victory — then two months later, man walks on the moon.
Unfortunately, America quickly lost its fascination with the space program. By the time Apollo 12 lifted off, it had already become routine to most people. The ill-fated Apollo 13 (the only spacecraft I ever saw on the pad) reminded everyone of the inherent dangers of space travel, but did not revise the fading interest. No one remembered how these brave men risked their lives to climb aboard these spacecraft that were so fragile and still unknown
I am fortunate that I have lived in a time when I got to witness America’s full capability. Some younger people today, who tend to buy into sensationalism, are now joining the growing number of the would-be conspiracy theorists who say it never happened. Apparently, they don’t believe that Americans were capable of such greatness. It is easier for the pseudo-intellectuals to throw out their silly theories than it is for NASA to continually try and re-prove its point. I pity these people that cannot accept the fact that greatness once existed and Americans were truly inspired toward achieving a goal.
Just three and a half years after Neil Armstrong took that first step, Gene Cernan took the last step ever on the surface of the moon. Only twelve people have ever walked on the moon. Of those twelve, nine remain but the youngest is seventy-three. When we celebrate the golden anniversary, that number will have diminished greatly. There are now some tentative plans to return to the moon by the year 2020. I plan to still around to see it, although I really want to still be alive to see the U.S. go to Mars. In the meantime…I’m content to remember the courage, bravery and dedication that these men had, while I reflect today on the anniversary of the greatest accomplishment during my lifetime.