Viewport: Cold War and Conversation
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2012
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the April/May 2012 issue of Air & Space.
Entering the National Air and Space Museum from the National Mall, visitors are greeted by three spacecraft that represent America’s decade-long journey to the moon: the tiny Mercury Friendship 7 capsule, which carried astronaut John Glenn into space on February 20, 1962, making him the first American to orbit Earth; the two-man Gemini 4 capsule, which orbited 62 times in 1965; and the much larger Apollo 11 command module, which in 1969 transported Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to lunar orbit and triumphantly brought them home. A nearby gallery, Space Race, places that 1960s journey in its cold-war context: The competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to reach the moon would allow the winner to claim technological superiority and, by extension, the superiority of its system of government.
In 1965, as Gemini missions began, it was not at all clear which side would win. The photographs in the feature “Ghosts of Gemini” show how strange Earth orbit seemed when space travel was new and how unnatural walking in space seemed to be for the Gemini astronauts. Today, with 50 years of experience under our belts, we almost take spacewalks for granted.
Before NASA embarked on the program to beat the Soviets to the moon, another product of the cold war was gathering information about what they were up to on the ground. The subject of this issue’s five-feature special, the Lockheed U-2 first flew over the Soviet Union in 1956. In the Museum’s Looking at Earth gallery, dominated by a U-2C suspended from the ceiling (its 80-foot span reaches from one wall of the gallery to the other), we tell the story of the spyplane’s early secret missions.
Although the space program was one of the chief expressions of cold war rivalry, it also provided an opportunity for cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union with the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (also featured at the Museum). The program created at least one lasting friendship: In 2004, Alexei Leonov, who commanded the Soyuz part of the mission, helped his good friend Thomas Stafford, who led the Apollo side, adopt two Russian teenagers.
NASA continues to be a conduit for scientists in one country to cooperate with their counterparts in another, even when there is no official channel of communication. When I worked at the space agency in the 1990s, I took pleasure in seeing our scientists work with colleagues around the world, regardless of political situations. At international conferences, we were careful to keep the discussions focused on technical matters, and we always learned from them. Those meetings, however, do have political repercussions. They establish relationships. In the turbulence of the 1960s or the uncertainties of our own era, it’s important to be able to pick up the phone and talk.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the national Air and Space Museum.