WE’RE ON THE MOON
So announced the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday, July 21, 1969, although the newspaper was in fact still in its offices in the Post-Gazette building in downtown Pittsburgh. The “we” either referred to the United States or possibly the human race as the front page story ran down the events of the preceding day, which most of the world watched live on television as they transpired. Those events were the culmination of the nation’s efforts to rise to a challenge made by President Kennedy, that of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade.
When Kennedy issued his challenge, only one American had flown in space, and that was for a short suborbital flight of just fifteen minutes duration. The Russians had already successfully orbited the earth and appeared to be ahead of the United States in nearly every area of manned spaceflight. A new term entered the American lexicon – the space race. American engineering and scientific leaders were heavily recruited to join the American space program, either through working directly for NASA or for its many contractors and subcontractors. As the sixties went on, American successes mounted and the goal looked to be achievable.
During John Glenn’s first American orbital flight in early 1962 he consumed a commercially available but poorly selling drink from General Foods called Tang. Its link to the space program vaulted it into a leading seller, especially popular with children. Late in the decade Pillsbury developed a commercial product it called Space Food Sticks, a snack food marketed to children based on some of the foods developed for the space program. The space program drove the development of the toy market, television programs, comic books, and motion pictures.
In January 1967, a fire during training for the first Apollo mission, which was the program destined to carry Americans to the moon, killed three astronauts, and the space program was roiled by the deaths of their own and the investigations that followed. A revamped program and redesigned space capsule were introduced when the astronauts began flying again the following year. In December 1968 the Apollo capsule orbited the moon. A dramatic broadcast by the astronauts that Christmas Eve showed the Earth from the perspective of lunar orbit as the astronauts read from the Book of Genesis.
When the Apollo 11 mission placed astronauts on the moon and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their footprints on its surface in July 1969 it initiated a burst of national pride. Subsequent moon flights failed to generate the fevered interest in the space program which had existed in the mid-1960s. Only the Apollo 13 near disaster received much airplay. The space program has never achieved the popularity and interest it captured in the 1960s, despite its enormous contributions to science, medicine, and our understanding of the universe.