When the world was bigger

A man named Felix Baumgartner recently ascended beneath a balloon for two and a half hours, twenty-four miles up, where the air is near to vacuum and the sky black, then climbed out of his capsule and jumped. The most striking thing to me, watchng the live feed as Baumgertner paused outside on his narrow metal step, gripping the rails and staring straight down, was not the height. Nor was it the curving rim of Earth. It was the isolation. Hard. Implacable. Final.

Another man, Neil Armstrong, passed away this summer. Four days after being catapulted from earth atop the most complex machine ever built at that time, toward a moving target a quarter-million miles away, navigating with less computing power on board than you’d find in a TI graphing calculator, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto alien ground, leaving Mike Collins to sail alone through an eternal night bigger than anything he had ever imagined, behind the moon, without radio communication, not knowing whether his companions were still alive, with only his own heartbeat.

They were there because a man by the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy had committed them, and us.

Kennedy told Congress, in his first State of the Union addres:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Yet, we also know that Kennedy was no starry-eyed idealist, no space enthusiast. During one critical meeting, Kennedy frankly told NASA chief James Webb, “…we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”

But in a speech at Rice University, Kennedy pounded the lecturn: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And the power of his delivery was electric.


Kennedy was brutally honest about one thing. The space program was a symbolic weapon in competing with the Soviet Union for the respect of other nations. And what he had in mind was not just their moral approval, but respect for our capabilities, that other nations would line up with us as the more likely winning side.

But why the moon? Why that particular mission, of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”? Why, when JFK was “not that interested in space”?

Fifty years ago this month the world was brought close to annihilation. It was called the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s elements were much the same as crises that have precipitated war since men organized in hostile bands armed with stones, except this time the weapons were powerful enough, and in such numbers, as to threaten extinction of the human species.

And the depths of the crisis are still coming to light, like the operational tactical nuclear missiles on Cuban soil, unknown to JFK and his cabinet:

“During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was ‘between 1 in 3 and even,’ and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.”

Pour yourself a glass of your favorite libation, sit back, close your eyes, and transport yourself to the early 1960’s. Before your glass is empty, you should begin to appreciate why we went to the moon.

Governments hostile to each other on both sides of the Atlantic controlled earth-destroying weapons, as well as missiles apparently capable of raining those weapons anywhere on earth.

Yet hardliners argued in Russian and in English that a “first strike” could be successful, victory possible.

Russian missiles had failed before. American missiles had failed. The deterrence of “Mutally Assured Destruction” was no deterrent, if there was no assurance.

Missile technology – it’s reliability, lifting power, and accuracy – was the critical factor. Or, to be precise, it was critical for the other fellow to believe it. But, in 1961, did he?

In my opinion, John Kennedy and a very tight inner circle chose a calculated gamble, to display American missile prowess through a peaceful endeavor, because, outisde the public eye, with little reliable intelligence, surrounded by pacifists and warmongers in equal measure, keenly aware of the risks and the difficulties of the undertaking, it was their lot to wrestle with the fate of the world.

At least Baumgartner, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, got to come home.

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