The space race, the movie Hidden Figures, and the Women’s March collided for me this week and threw off new sparks and fired up fresh insight for me.
Fire has many purposes: It can light, heat, cook, cleanse, transform, propel, and destroy. The fire of a compelling mission can also be the beacon that guides our way.
The space race, including the giant rockets that sent men to the moon, has brought light and transformation to much of my life. The people, teams, technology and achievements of those who reach for the heavens, who travel there, and who get them there, have inspire me often to this day.
The movie “Hidden Figures”
brought that to mind again. It was on one level a sentimental reminder of loved ones.
I’m a trailing edge Boomer, and a child of the Space Age: Sputnik made its appearance a couple of years before I did. My late (and formidable) mother-in-law and my late father would have enjoyed the movie very much. They were both engineers. Susan Gertler, like the women in the movie, was a pioneering woman in computer science. I remembered her spirited, earthy, no-nonsense, chuckle as the story unfolded.
My dad was a telecom guy second, and a space nut first. He was captivated by everything about the space program. He subscribed to National Geographic just so we could get the latest, most beautiful, photos of humankind’s greatest adventure. Our family pored over them eagerly. Like millions of others, we knew the space race first through those pictures, the carefully-curated stories in LIFE magazine, narrated by Walter Cronkite and Jules Bergman.
Sentimentality aside, Hidden Figures was a compelling reminder of why the space race captivated the American spirit. I remember nothing of the Cold War first-hand. Not only was I too young to have experienced “duck and cover” drills at school. I was in the wrong country: it was literally happening somewhere else.
Growing up, I was oblivious to the space race with Russia as a giant surrogate for the kind of battles that had been fought for centuries in mud and trenches with men and women and mud and gas and horses and horrors. I didn’t grasp that the space race was deeply troubling and very real for the millions who “…believed that whoever controlled the heavens would control life on earth.”
I came face to nozzle with the meaning of the space race in the context of the Cold War in 1996.
My first visit to the Kennedy Space Center was twenty years before that, in 1976, just four years after lunar missions ended, as a teenager on a family vacation. It was a lot like Disney World (the trip’s major destination): surreal and overwhelming to see things in person that I had only watched on TV for my whole life.
Thinking about it today, the 1976 trip was a faint reflection of NASA’s meticulously-planned epic journeys. My parents put everything they had so we could boldly go where our whole family had not gone before. They did the calculations to make sure that the family’s resources, from financial and automotive to emotional, were enough to take a family of six (kids 12, 13, 15, and 16) on a two-thousand-plus mile car trip in the Olds Vista Cruiser from Oshawa to Orlando and return safely to our house.
My return trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) twenty years later was also its own epic and meticulously-planned adventure. I had become a pilot myself, in 1987, inspired by my Dad’s own love of air and space.
In 1996, as a newly-rated instrument pilot, I took my first long instrument cross-country flight from Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Florida. That type and length of flight is a big deal for a newly-qualified instrument pilot: planning and preparation and troubleshooting (a malfunctioning transponder delayed us and had to get fixed) mixed in equal measure with the delight and beauty of the trip.
While we were there, my two co-pilots and I dropped into NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitors’ Center. I had lived a few miles from the National Air and Space Museum for almost a decade and visited many times. But it wasn’t until that 1996 trip, looking at an exhibit of the business end of the giant Saturn V engine that propelled the Apollo launch, that I stopped cold. The emotional impact of the space race hit me in the gut.
I had forgotten until then that these rockets were the literal technological children of Werner von Braun, designer of WWII’s deadly V2’s. This successor American technology rose from a capability designed to kill people, and could easily be adapted to do so again with nuclear warheads.
(Another twenty years after that, in 2016, I was watching an HBO documentary about the Russian side of the space race. They charged ahead with many global firsts, despite well-hidden explosive failures. They ultimately lost not just because of politics that funded two rival programs and split scarce resources…but because their principal scientist, Sergei Korolev,
died in 1966.)
No wonder winning the space race was such a big deal. It wasn’t really about a flag on the moon at all. It WAS about something much bigger, much more profound, for the whole planet: survival in the face of technology that could take us all out.
Here’s where I connect the dots.
The space race was imperative to win because the technological victor gained moral superiority, too: the ability to REFUSE to use that technology as an offensive weapon, and the ability to have it in reserve, or threat, as a defensive one.
Was the space race a battle was so important in the 1950’s and ’60’s that it shoved issues of racial and sexual equality aside? The world portrayed in Hidden Figures suggests that that might have happened in some places. The imperative of winning WWII and the space race didn’t magically evaporate racial and sexual inequality in Langley, Virginia, either before or after NASA was created.
But such a powerful common mission meant that people were able to set aside differences that, without compelling common mission, might have mattered more.
As a nation, America might be more deeply divided, and along more lines and splintered factions, than ever before. I hope that the biggest lesson that people take away from this past election cycle is that the cost of a polarized polity is too high. We need to rise above the fractious noise and reporting and private conversations to explore what a new common vision for America might look like.