One Giant Leap : Part 1
“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” Wernher Von Braun
In October of 1957, a small metal ball named Sputnik changed the world. With its launch, the gauntlet was thrown down and the Space Race had begun. For the next decade, the US and the Soviet Union both worked tirelessly to push farther and farther away from the safety of the Earth and into the vast expanse of space. The race would not end until July 20, 1969, which is 50 years ago this week.
In the scale of human history, this is not a very long time. But for us, it’s been long enough for the entire world to change. Computers have been miniaturized, navigation improved, and satellites are an accepted and normal piece of technology. It’s all-too-easy to take for granted all the amazing things we’ve created because of the space program. In fact, many people have argued that space exploration is too expensive. It’s certainly true that going to the moon wasn’t cheap. But this is a conversation carried out on smartphones and laptop computers, devices which simply wouldn’t exist today without the innovations born from our push to the moon. Indeed, looking at the benefits we’ve reaped in knowledge and technology, the $25 billion that it cost to launch the 17 Apollo missions actually seems like a bargain.
There are a lot of lessons one can take from the space program, from the way people can come together to solve complex problems to the importance of science education. But more than anything, the lesson of the space race is that there’s not just one road towards success. The path to the moon was not a straight line. In truth, the entire operation began with a sense of failure, a sense of panic that we’d lost to the Russians. After all, the Russians had launched a rocket up first. The Russians put someone into orbit first. The Russians sent an astronaut out for a spacewalk first.
It would have been easy to concede space to them. To give up. And there were many that wanted to. However, there was also a core of perseverance, a drive to succeed, a willingness to keep pushing.
Dozens of the first rockets America built never made it more than a few feet off the launch pad. It isn’t hard to see the evidence of these failures: there are dozens of videos on the internet showing these massive missiles exploding in bursts of yellow and crimson flames. Here, too, it would have been easy to cut our losses and stay home. But that’s not what happened.