Viewport: Longer Strides
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, January 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 January 2012 issue of Air & Space.
When Alan Shepard became the first American in space, 50 years ago last April, the launch came at a time when the new president, John F. Kennedy, was considering whether to commit the country to a bold NASA proposal to land men on the moon. From this side of history, it’s hard to imagine what NASA was like eight years before the Apollo triumph. We get a glimpse of a young agency trying to balance caution and confidence in Tony Reichhardt’s story, “The Candle Lighters.” (The title is a reference to Shepard’s famous exhortation to the launch controllers to “light this candle” and send his Redstone rocket on its way. Shepard was clearly on the side of confidence.) NASA at the time was staffed by capable, dedicated engineers, technicians, and administrators, but they were inventing the field of human spaceflight as they went. Not only did they have no experience to guide them, they were also losing a race. They were under tremendous pressure to catch up with the Soviets, who, by the time of Shepard’s up-and-back flight, had already sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to get to know one of the early leaders of NASA, Robert Seamans. A NASA associate administrator when Kennedy took office, Seamans was responsible for making major technical decisions at the outset of the Apollo program. In an interview with the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History Division, Seamans, who died in 2008, remembered some of the stress he experienced during the early decision making. (You can find the interview at airspacemag.com/nasm.seamans.) He recalled one evening stroll after a particularly trying day: “We went up the hill right behind where we lived in Georgetown, with a park up at the top, and there happened to be a full moon. I remember looking up at that moon and wondering if I was crazy. But each step as we thought about it seemed to make sense, from the standpoint of my own personal experience.”
Each step also had to make sense to the president; the country’s reputation was on the line. Seamans believed it was Shepard’s flight that persuaded JFK to shoot for the moon. In the interview, he said, “I think one of the reasons he held off on the Apollo decision was he wasn’t sure that we could deliver.… And I think for that reason, that little Mercury flight had a tremendous bearing on what was to follow.” Three weeks after the launch, Kennedy told a joint session of Congress, “Now is the time to take longer strides.”
Today, private launch firms are attempting longer strides, with NASA’s 50 years of experience to guide them. Elon Musk’s SpaceX, for example, is about to launch supplies to the International Space Station, and Musk says that he’ll soon be able to launch people there. This time, it’s his reputation on the line. We may be poised for another Alan Shepard moment.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum.