The death of Sen. John Glenn on December 8 brought to my mind the extraordinary achievement of his three orbits around the earth on February 20, 1962. He was the last survivor of the Mercury astronauts, the seven American test pilots who risked their lives to prove that humans could travel and work in space.
They were more than explorers, in a sense. They were soldiers in a propaganda war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which one-upped each other for more than a decade to prove the superiority of their respective political systems. It was started in 1957 by Russia with the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and climaxed with the US moon landing in 1969. The “space race,” as people called it, was the most visible, non-military manifestation of the Cold War between America and the USSR.
Glenn and the astronauts’ exploits fired my young boy’s imagination like nothing else. I was born in 1959, the year cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. Among the first important national events I can remember were the manned U.S. rocket launches of mid-1960s.
Glenn and the astronauts’ exploits fired my young boy’s imagination like nothing else.
In 2005, the BBC distributed a four-part docu-drama that looked back on the mid-20th century space competition between the superpowers. Titled Space Race, the series uses the real-life rocket engineers Wernher Von Braun (Richard Dillane) and Sergei Korolev (Steve Nicolson) as stand-ins for the US and the Soviet Union, casting the quarter century between the end of World War II and the moon landing as a contest between two minds.
With this narrative device, the series does an excellent job of giving the interested lay person a sense of the obstacles facing the two engineers, and not just the engineering and scientific obstacles. Von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party, and he probably knew that the V-2 rockets he designed and fired on London indiscriminately toward the end of the war were built by slave labor. Understanding his value as a military resource, and fearing that the Soviets coveted his expertise, the U.S. Army overlooked his Nazi past to gain an advantage over the Red Army, which many expected to be America’s next adversary.
Korolev, for his part, exemplified the terror of Stalinist Russia. Denounced by a jealous colleague, he spent six years in a Soviet forced labor camp. Released on a promise to build a rocket program, he led the team that achieved Sputnik, Gagarin’s flight, and a host of other firsts. His identity was kept quiet by the KGB until his death in 1966, when he was hailed a Soviet hero. Afterward, his successors squabbled, rocket tests failed, and money ran low. By the time the Americans landed on the moon in 1969, the Soviet program was in a shambles.
Glenn gets a passing mention in the series. The producers didn’t even bother to hire a balding blond actor to play him in a group shot with the Mercury 7. Nonetheless, Space Race is a great introduction to the earliest days of space flight as not only an act of exploration, but as a match between rival ways of thinking. In the end, America won the space race, but without the Russians, would we still be looking at the moon and wondering, when will we visit?
Space Race is available on Netflix and on DVD. What do you think of John Glenn’s passing?