50 years on, and the space race still resonates

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This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the safe return of the Apollo 11 crew after a 476,000-mile round trip to the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins splashed down in the Columbia command module in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.

During the past week of celebrations, it was moving to see the awe felt by members of the two generations born since that epic journey as they read about it and examined its artifacts. In many cases, their sense of wonder nearly equaled that of those who were alive on the auspicious Sunday when Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon.

Despite the fear and mistrust between the two superpowers of the 1960s — the United States and Soviet Union — the space race that they engaged in was remarkably friendly. On the ground, the two countries were locked in a bitter cold war that regularly broke into hot wars fought by proxies around the world. But even as they squared off in places like Vietnam, Cuba and Angola, the feeling in space was one of friendly competition and admiration as each side reached new milestones.

From the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957 — often visible from Earth at night as it passed overhead — to the first manned space flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, to John Glenn’s historic flight orbiting Earth a year later, each country celebrated its accomplishments while wondering about those of its rival. Despite the violence on the ground, neither side ever attacked each other’s spacecrafts.

There were also relatively few mishaps during space flights, despite the inherent dangers of the missions and the brand-new technologies employed in them. There were three dozen missions between 1961 and the moon landing, and only four fatalities directly connected to space flight. In 1967, three astronauts were killed when the oxygen inside their Apollo space capsule ignited during a test. Later the same year, a Soviet cosmonaut died when his parachutes failed to open on re-entry and his capsule crashed into the ground.

Astronauts like Gagarin and Glenn became overnight superstars. Our astronauts’ feats were chronicled extensively on the evening news, with “CBS Nightly News” anchor Walter Cronkite explaining each mission. The Apollo project was especially important to Long Islanders, because the lunar excursion module that carried Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s surface was assembled at the Northrop Grumman plant in Bethpage.

When President John F. Kennedy vowed in 1961 to put a man on the moon “before the end of this decade,” virtually nothing was known of the challenges that would need to be overcome to make his words a reality. The U.S. had only developed small missiles as weapons, and computers were still in their nascent stages. But Armstrong’s “one small step” and the eight years of effort that made it possible ushered in what amounted to a new scientific revolution, comparable to the one begun by the gifted titans of the Renaissance like Copernicus and Galileo.

Much of what was needed to explore space had to be invented, in the same way that Galileo had to build his own telescopes and Newton had to develop calculus. Much of what we take for granted today, from computers to GPS navigation to the internet, has roots in the space program.

As important, the perception of what was possible — humankind’s reach — took the same giant leap. With the right motivation and willingness to accomplish, we came to believe that no task was impossible.

We should apply that same thinking to today’s most critical issues. Last weekend’s scorching temperatures on Long Island reminded us that climate change desperately needs a worldwide commitment to solving the problem, before the Earth’s atmosphere is altered irrevocably. Racism, economic injustice, nuclear proliferation and sectarian violence need every ounce of ingenuity and cooperation that humans can muster.

Of the Apollo 11 mission, Aldrin wrote, “This has been far more than three men on a mission to the moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”

That curiosity, cooperation and commitment to a positive end has never been more urgently needed than now.