Today on International Men’s day (19 November 2019), Duncan Laidlaw, Project Manager in our Wells Solution Centre, shares his blog how he has been inspired by “mans” race to space. He highlights the incredible role models – both male and female – who made it possible through collaboration to achieve a shared end goal, at times through incredible adversity and personal risk.
It might have been a man who was first took steps on the moon, but through diversity and inclusion mankind is already shaping future technology, that can truly take us to infinity and beyond…
I have been inspired about man’s race to space, and ultimately the moon. Unlike many, I was alive in 1969 and remember – albeit somewhat vaguely – the times that space race started and to some degree ended. I recall then being glued to a black and white TV screen watching the NASA rockets blast into space and on a hot summer night in late July 1969 watching Neil Armstrong take his immortal step onto the moon’s eerie surface. Watching NASA’s 50th anniversary programmes this Summer led me reflect on my childhood and the time at which the NASA space programme was at it’s peak, trying to achieve the mandate set for the American space programme by President Kennedy in 1962.
If you didn’t live through the cold war period, it is hard to understand the feelings of potential doom that hung over the world during those times and possibly to understand how so much of what drove the west – in particular the Americans – was the desire to best the Soviet Union. To show the communists that our way of life was superior to theirs. It permeated every global event where nations of the world gathered; things like the Olympic games became little more than an us versus them with both sides competing to show the world whose political system was superior. The desire to get to space became part of the battleground.
The small city in SE Alberta where I grew up was equipped with half a dozen air raid sirens that duly sounded every night at 10pm. With a large military base 40km from the city that housed the Canadian and British armies and a large Defence Canada research station – where my father worked blowing things up – it wasn’t an irrational fear that the small city of Medicine Hat might be a Soviet target in times of war. It was a reality. The Soviets were a genuine, not a potential threat. So, one of the things I recall most about the Americans in space, and Mr Armstrong and Aldrin’s moon walk is that we, the west, had got there first. Proof that we were better than the Russians.
With a quick Google search, I looked back at the local newspaper’s editorial from July 21, 1969 and it highlights succinctly the sentiment of the day.
This editorial was first published in the Medicine Hat News on July 21, 1969, the day after Apollo 11 landed on the moon:
The footprints of man have joined the footprints of time on the surface of the moon.
Momentous achievement, superb performance, stunning success – the United States astronauts’ brief exploration of the Sea of Tranquillity was all of those and more.
Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, the first human beings to land on another “planet,” have become figures of history.
So has Michael Collins; they also serve who only circle and wait. For all the excitement of a unique event, the human imprinting of the surface of the moon had its dull side. The reason is plain. The moon is a dull place, relatively speaking. Not to geologists and geophysicists, of course; but for the ordinary person it lacks the most interesting features of a living planet; forests and grasslands, animals and flying things, signs of habitation and intelligent life.
Nothing of that kind may be found by man-in-space anywhere in the solar system. For evidence of living things, we may have to wait until men reach the planets of another star, though it is much too early in the space game to discount all possibility of the discovery of life in our own system of planets.
There is some connection, interestingly enough, between the question of life on other worlds and the tedious collection of samples of moon dust and rock which consumed so much of the astronauts’ time.
The samples should tell geologists and geophysicists more about the moon’s composition. This can throw light on its origins; and its origins can throw light on earth’s origins. When men know how earth originated – and at the moment they can do little more than theorize about it – they will have a pretty good idea of how common life is in the universe.
The American triumph on the moon has put the Soviet Union definitely in second place in space. Maybe the Russians did opt out of the moon race, as Nikita Khruslichev said they would, a few years ago; but they are now behind in almost every vital aspect of the exploration of space. Their manned program, in particular, has accomplished very little and has fallen far behind in the past two years.
It has been widely believed that they would concentrate next, in manned flight, on the development of a large space platform orbiting Earth. It was, indeed, thought likely that they would launch their moon-landing vehicle from such a platform, rather than from a spaceship orbiting the moon.
That now seems beside the point. But the platform retains its importance. It probably will be required not only to transport large quantities of material and numbers of men to the moon for development of moon stations but also to launch a manned spaceship for the long journey to Mars. The U.S. therefore will want a platform sooner or later. In all probability, it will build one before the Russians do.
Meanwhile, may the astronauts return safely from the moon to Earth!
Interesting that after claiming victory of sorts – ‘the Soviet Union definitely in second place in space’ and only one day after successfully landing men on the moon, the editor of a small Canadian prairie town newspaper was already suggesting the need for a ‘large space platform’ that would orbit the earth and be the base for further space exploration. I’m not sure if this suggests dissatisfaction with the achievement or a genuine desire to something before the Soviets could. The TV documentaries often make the point that the American public seemed to quite quickly lose interest in the space programme once Apollo 11 returned to earth.
Over the years, I have been lucky to travel to Florida and Houston where I visited the NASA facilities. In a 1977 family visit to Florida, we were able to visit and observe the space shuttle Enterprise undergoing final preparations for its test flights. It was interesting to see the contrasts between the technology involved in the space shuttle programme when compared to that employed in the earlier space flights. When compared to the other capsules kept as museum pieces, the shuttles appeared vastly superior. Ironically, despite using vastly improved technology, the shuttles have not been flown without tragedy, thus highlighting the inherent dangers involved with space exploration.
I have also had the great fortune to live and work in Russia. Visiting the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics is one of the best places to visit in Moscow. The Vostok spacecraft in which Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth is there to see, along with several of the personal items used on his trip to space. What is most striking is how little technology was employed in the capsule in which Gagarin flew. If I recall, there were a few gauges on a dashboard and a small handle connected to wire with which to control the vessel. I’m not sure how Russian technology stacked up against that of the Americans. On one of the programmes I’ve watched, it was Buzz Aldrin I believe who said there was more technology in his Nokia watch than there was in the spaceship that carried him to the moon. Either way, it seems to me the early space efforts of both the Russians and the Americans were driven more by human spirit and bravery than technological know-how. Visiting the museum certainly wiped away any remaining thoughts I may have had that we (the west) were in any way superior to the Russians because NASA got there first. In my books, both sides exhibited a certain fortitude specific to their national characters.
For a rather unnerving reminder of what could – and sometimes did – go wrong during space exploration, go online and search for Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. Komorov knowingly went into space in a Soyuz vessel that prior to his flight had been identified to contain 203 structural problems. He was certain he would not make it back to earth alive. Knowing the Soviet government would not take a refusal to fly well – anyone who saw a 10 page memo written by Yuri Gagarin identifying the faults was demoted, fired or sent to posts in Siberia – Komorov took his place in the doomed vessel in order to save his friend Gagarin who was the backup cosmonaut for the mission. Komarov’s capsule suffered many problems during its orbit. A second vessel that was meant to be sent up to dock with his capsule to bring him back to earth could not be launched. As he re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, the parachutes on the Soyuz capsule failed to deploy and Komarov free fell to earth, his space capsule crashing in a fiery ball on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Some may say his actions were fool hardy and unwise. Perhaps even callous – his wife listened on a phone while he plummeted to his death. I think it reflects the times. And a certain kind of bravery.
Watching the current crop of anniversary programmes, one thing becomes clear. The magnitude of human effort and sacrifice that was put into getting men into space and onto the moon was enormous. While the men with ‘the right stuff’ who flew the rockets rightly got the glory, approximately 400,000 people were involved behind the scenes in the NASA space programme:
- The female mathematicians who despite facing segregation laws, worked diligently behind the scenes and computed the math used to send John Glenn into space.
- Ed Dwight, who despite qualifying as an Apollo astronaut, was not allowed to go to space because of “the colour of his skin”.
- Poppy Northcott, the only woman in the Apollo control room who was instrumental in getting the Apollo 13 astronauts back to earth safely.
- The British and Canadian Avro scientists involved in designing the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, and later the Apollo lunar modules.
- The numerous German rocket scientists who left Germany for new lives in the USA and key roles in the American space programme.
- And all the rest. Thousands of anonymous technicians, engineers, mathematicians, accountants and administrators who, behind the scenes, quietly played their part. My dad has even informed me that the NASA astronauts came to my hometown to train in a crater created by a 500-ton explosion they had done at the aforementioned DRES facility at Suffield.
Fifty years after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, one also has cause to reflect on how much has changed on the global stage. As China asserts itself economically and geopolitically, complete with its own space programme, the USA seems to have faltered. When I was a kid, America was like a huge magnet. My dream was to escape the frozen Canadian prairies to play hockey for the Boston Bruins. Boston being – believe it or not – balmy in the winter by the standards of my hometown. Nowadays, it seems America has somewhat lost its way, and a failure to build upon the Apollo programme success symbolic of the nations decline. Maybe it was inevitable that the USA could not forever go its own way exploring space on its own.
Perhaps the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon will spur mankind to enter a new era of cooperation when it comes to space exploration. With private money from Musk and Branson, NASA and other national space agencies might come together to reinvigorate space exploration and develop new technologies to reach Mars or some remote asteroid. And these can be adapted for use here to help us on our own planet to improve life here on earth. LEDs, CAT scans, athletic shoes, freeze dried food, and camera phones amongst other things came about as the result of technologies developed to make space travel possible. Perhaps the solutions to plastic waste in our rivers and oceans and other forms of environmental degradation will come about from human’s desire to reinvigorate space exploration. It is interesting to note the observations of the astronauts about how beautiful was our own planet when they observed it from space. Furthering our efforts in space might help to unite humanity in a common cause of cooperation. To further our knowledge and expand our horizons in a positive vein. What problems could we solve if we align put our minds to it? The current documentaries highlight that despite one flag on the rocket, success in space was a true collaborative effort and a diverse team from several countries played their parts.
When I look back at the space race of the 1960s and 70s it seems to me that America was a nation that seemed to be able to solve the biggest problems and challenges a nation and its people could face. It was a time when it seemed there were no limits to what America could do. It’s clear today that America cannot do it all on its own. I think if the people of the world would look up a little more from their mobile phones, roll up their sleeves, apply a little more elbow grease and exhibit some old fashioned prairie gumption, there is no telling what new frontiers we might reach.