1928-1970: How it all began
Life in the United States of America in the 1950s was pretty good. After the end of the Second World War, America was entering a Golden Age. The war effort which had provided tanks, planes, and ships, was now focused on providing more luxurious items to an eager population that may have only made up 5% of the world’s total, but that was wealthier than the other 95% combined.
The only blot on the landscape was the Soviet Union. This was the McCarthy era, and the Senator from Wisconsin had made it very clear to all Americans that the enemy was without doubt Red. Most of his accusations were, in fact, totally groundless, but his point had been well made and remembered by the U. S. public. When the U. S.S. R. launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in October 1957, the paranoia that Joseph McCarthy had begun returned with full force. It suddenly seemed that America could not do anything right. When the U. S. responded with their attempt at a satellite launch in December, it exploded after achieving the heady heights of about two feet. They were finally successful in January 1958, but the other four launches that year also failed publicly, and there were many further very spectacular, very public spaceflight failures over the next decade. Meanwhile, it seemed like the Soviet Union could do nothing wrong, they seemed to enjoy success after success in the field of spaceflight, up to and including the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first human into orbit, in April 1961. By comparison, the U. S.A. were not yet ready for a manned spaceflight, and just one week after Gagarin’s flight, the U. S. suffered the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba that brought further embarrassment to the nation. The truth, of course, was a little different. In much later years we would learn that the U. S.S. R. suffered many failures in their space program, but this was not known at the time, and anyway the American public was not going to let a little thing like the facts get in the way of their opinion that somebody somewhere was sleeping on the job.
In 1961, therefore, the pressure was on new U. S. President John Kennedy to restore some pride to the nation, and if that sent a message to those pesky Russians at the same time, all the better. The question that Kennedy asked his advisors was,
“What can we beat the Russians at?” He was advised that simply trying to launch a space station ahead of their rivals would be a waste of time; the Soviets had already demonstrated that they had the lifting capability to achieve that goal before the U. S.A., and another “first” to the communists at this stage was unthinkable. So Kennedy’s mind was made up for him, a month after Gagarin’s flight, and with only 15 minutes of U. S. manned spaceflight experience behind him in the shape of Alan Shepard’s ballistic flight, he announced the challenge of putting a man on the moon before the Soviet Union, and of doing so before the end of the decade. This was not to be a scientific endeavor, nor a noble crusade, it was to be a simple politically motivated challenge to the Russians to get there and back first, ideally without killing anyone in the process. It was not really what NASA wanted to do. The space agency knew that it was not ready for this, it had not even put a man into orbit yet, and now it was being asked to build the equipment needed to send men 250,000 miles to the moon and back, whilst at Cape Canaveral it seemed that every other rocket launch ended in a big bang. As we will see this crash program to send men to the moon and back did little to promote the cause of manned space stations, and in fact, simply got in the way of a logically progressive manned spaceflight effort. Not that Project Apollo and the Soviet moon program stopped all thinking about space stations, it did not, but it certainly meant that such ideas took a back seat to the preparations for landing a man on the moon.
America began to claw back the ground lost to the U. S.S. R. at the opening of the space race. In February 1962 Project Mercury put John Glenn into Earth orbit. In 1965-1966 Project Gemini, a two-man spacecraft, managed its own “firsts” in spaceflight, and out-stripped the Russian space program, which was having problems of its own behind closed doors, in every area. And Project Apollo succeeded in landing men on the moon even before the Soviets were on the starting block. Meanwhile, others were thinking about space stations, all about a more permanent presence in space, where science and discovery were the motivating factors. Such thinking had begun many years earlier, almost as early as the dawn of flight itself.