Today’s research turned out to be particularly helpful for my book.
Reading about the space race is dull science unless you’re particularly interested in military history. But I didn’t feel that it was boring when I was a kid.
Using the Nova (PBS) space race time line available online, I thought I would see how my memories fit into the historical and political context.
My first memory was of a model rocket ship my dad “helped me” put together. We still lived on Trimble and it was before the bomb shelter, so it had to be 1961 or before. I was very young and the model was far too advanced for me. I wasn’t old enough to go to a school with a “rocket club,” where kids met and compared rocket models.
According to Nova, the space race began the month of my birth, July 1955. After WWII, the US and USSR “entered into the Cold War game of spy-versus-spy that ultimately led to the space race.” Eisenhower proposed an “Open Skies” policy so that “either nation would be allowed to fly reconnaissance aircraft over the other.” The USSR rejected the idea, and both countries began work on satellites to gather intelligence.
In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched their satellite Sputnik 1 into orbit. A month later they sent a dog into orbit in Sputnik 2. On January 31, 1958, the U.S. launched Explorer 1 and in July 1958, Eisenhower announced that NASA would be formed with the mission of exploring space.
By 1959 both countries had begun the process of missions to the moon. Pioneer (US) and Luna (USSR) were spacecrafts designed to take us to the moon. In 1960, the United States and Soviet Union continued to work on rocket and satellite technology.
These unmanned rocket ships captured the imagination of Americans. Being satisfied with this less personal involvement in space was soon to change.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviets succeeded in sending a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. The Soviets had put the first man into space and beaten the Americans once again.
Before our spare bedroom was turned into a nursery for my brother, I remember wearing a space man helmet in that room while my mother wrote letters. The costume had tin foil on it somewhere, but my memory exists only as an impressionistic image.
Dell comics started the series Space Man in 1961. The comics were published for over ten years. They featured, as did many books and toys of the era, astronauts in “space suits.”
In October 1962, American reconnaissance planes discovered Soviet nuclear missile sites being constructed in Cuba. This was only 90 miles from the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted two weeks. The U.S. also had bases at the Turkish-Soviet border. People were very shaken up because they believed that a nuclear war had been narrowly averted. Both countries removed their weapons, but it drove their efforts to compete more deeply underground and more deeply into the fabric of the culture at the time.
I didn’t have a clue this was going on, although not too long after the Cuban Missile Crisis we started getting Spanish teachers in the public schools, and the teachers were always Cuban.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory plans were announced at the end of 1963. The secret mission of the lab was for the astronauts to take more detailed photos of the Soviets and their allies.
In March 1964 we moved and I no longer slept over the bomb shelter. My parents transferred me to a 3rd grade classroom in a new school that month.
The bulletin board was decked out for a reading competition which featured planets and stars. I wrote a report about all nine planets—Mercury to Pluto. At my school science fair, in 4th grade, at least half the exhibits were related to “outer space.”
In my 4th grade classroom (1964-65) we watched documentaries about the space race. One that particularly disturbed me was seeing a chimpanzee being put into the small spaceship, where I knew he would be blasted into space and imagined he would eternally die, as if his death would be an ongoing tragedy.
I looked for the video online—or at least a reasonable facsimile, but haven’t been able to find one yet. I did discover that Ham, the first chimp shot into space, survived and lived another 17 years.
Nevertheless, other non-human primates were not so lucky.
After that, a new vista of space opened up for me and many other American children. The TV show Lost in Space aired on September 15, 1965 and lasted until March 6, 1968. A while back somebody posted a photo from this show on Facebook, and many people confessed to having been very absorbed by this show. I remember setting up chairs in my basement and pretending it was the “chariot” which rolls over the rocky terrains of unknown planets.
Instead of poor innocent chimps or anonymous astronauts being shot into space, here was an American family who were surviving in the hostile and exciting environments of outer space. I never knew that the costumes worn by the family were such brilliant colors as I watched the show on our black and white Zenith TV (with herringbone patterns and general fuzz overlaying the images).
Close on the heels of Lost in Space, Star Trek aired on September 8, 1966. The difference in quality of the two shows was astronomically 😉 different. The first was a kitschy show for children. The second was far superior in the way it was imagined and the appeal was broader. Interestingly, though, it was sort of a flop at the beginning, as if it were ahead of its time. By the time I started to watch it I was ready for this show in addition to my diet of spy shows (especially those from U.N.C.LE.).
My fickle heart switched from Lost in Space to Star Trek when I started junior high in 7th grade. That would have been the fall of 1967. So after only one year my crush on the first show was supplanted by my crush on the new show.
After watching Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and the rest handle the denizens of outer space, what happened in 1969 wasn’t a big surprise.
As the Nova timeline indicates, “to many, the space race ended when Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin set foot on the moon.” I didn’t need a timeline to tell me when this occurred because they landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, my fourteenth birthday. That was the summer before 9th grade. I have a very short story of this birthday on the storytelling website Cowbird.
This story describes how we watched the ship land on the moon on my parents’ 9” Sony portable TV. I was an awkward fourteen, my braces packed with corn which I’d just eaten off the cob. I remember suddenly knowing I wasn’t a kid any more.
Imagine that: the space race began and ended with my childhood. Or should I say that my childhood began and ended with the space race?