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'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind'

Lance Neita

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Readers have responded to last week's column on the intricacies of space, some asking what about Jamaica. Naturally, if it is outer, or inner, Jamaicans have to be involved. The USA is in the lead in the race to discover, for example, what, if any, alien life exists in outer space. But Jamaicans are not to be left out.

News broke earlier this year that researchers at The University of the West Indies, led by Dr Louis Ray Harris, have developed a satellite which they hope to use as a model for the Caribbean's first functional home-grown satellite, capable of being launched in space. The type of satellite is known as a CUBESAT, usually built to carry out space research.

Dr Harris said he hopes the new satellite will yield an increased interest in space and satellite technology among students, adding that Caribbean societies rely on satellites for critical services such as telecommunications, tracking weather events and coordinating relief efforts during natural disasters or conflict.

However he pointed out that a possible launch may take years as many improvements, funding and partnerships would be needed before that can be considered.

The challenge to probe deeper into outer space is being met by a number of countries using the International Space Station (ISS) as a test-bed. We know about ISIS, but what do you and I know about the ISS?

The ISS has been in orbit around the Earth for the past 17 years, and is the third brightest object in the sky. Visible to the naked eye, it looks like a fast-moving plane only much higher and travelling thousands of miles an hour faster! It is easy to spot (I am told) if you follow the directions set out by NASA.

The ISS programme is a joint project among five participating space agencies including of course the USA and Russia. The ownership and use of the space station is established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements.

The station has been continuously occupied for over 17 years. This is the longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit (I believe 50 miles above Earth). It has been visited by astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists from 17 different nations.

This kind of international cooperation would not have been thought possible in the 1950s when the initial space race began. Those early days were almost childish in their hide-and-seek and one-upmanship antics. The race was a competition which lasted from 1955 to 1975, well within the memory of many Jamaicans who grew up under the watchful eye of the thousands of satellites that have been launched and have been circling the globe with manned journeys to the moon and unmanned probes into the outer reaches of the galaxy.

The contest can be said to have officially begun on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union announced that it planned to launch satellites into space; this in response to a similar announcement made a few days earlier by its arch-rival the USA.

The genesis for all this argument was the Cold War, which had developed between East and West since the end of World War II and into the 1950s. It was a time when both countries, with the help of captured German engineers, were busily developing modern rocket arsenals up to the levels of the Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles with space launch capacities.

The development took on a cloak-and-dagger element when the Russians, following their declaration of intent, began to conceal their efforts under a cloud of secrecy that kept out Americans and the rest of the world.

Imagine then, the world's surprise — and us in little Jamaica watching from ringside — when suddenly, on Friday, October 4, 1957, radio receivers began to pick up a 'beep, beep, beep' from outer space, which had not been expected on the international network. Unknown to the rest of the world, Russia had launched man's first satellite at exactly 10:28:34 (Russian time) that morning. Sputnik 1 was no more than a small ball, less than 2” in diameter and weighing 200 pounds. But gradually, radio receivers and space watchers began to realise that they were witnessing an amazing moment in world history, with the stranger in the universe announcing its arrival with the odd beeping sound and a reflection from the sun's rays adding to the spectacle of the cosmos in the evening skies.

At Munro College, during those evenings we watched from Long Wall on the peak of the Santa Cruz mountains as the little dot came over the horizon to join the stars and planets that normally lit up the night sky. It was easily spotted as we had only the peenie wallies to contend with and no artificial JPS lighting to obscure our view.

Celebrations in Russia reached near sky high as the Sputnik completed its first orbit. But across the USA there was near panic. The much-vaunted USA space plans had become an international joke. The Russians nicknamed the American plan Flopnik, or the Stayputnik. Over at the United Nations the Russian delegate offered the USA “aid under the Soviet programme of technical assistance to backward nations”.

That mocking offer was a bit too much for American pride. President Eisenhower ordered an acceleration of the programme. But, on December 6 that year, an attempt to launch a counter satellite failed. America was now a laughing stock.

Then on January 31, 1958, four months after Sputnik 1, success at last. The American Explorer 1 weighed in at 30.8 pounds. It opened the gate for a second satellite in March which orbited the globe three times. It was still anybody's race.

Russia remained in the lead, however, as on April 12, 1961, they surprised the world again when they launched Yuri Gagarin into a single orbit in a craft called Vostok 1, the first human being to go into space orbit. The celebrations hit supersonic levels, and Gagarin was made a national hero.

All this was a great setback to America, as they had named their programme 'Man in space soonest', and these Russian upstarts were clearly in the lead.

Nevertheless, they pushed on with new President John F Kennedy giving full support and on May 5, 1961, they finally got their first man into space, Alan Shepard, who completed a non-orbit entry and return. American stocks were revived and face saved. It was at this point that Kennedy was prompted to announce to the world, on September 12, 1961, that “before this decade is out we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth”. This was very much in-your-face to Russia. The race was still on.

It took a year after Gagarin for America to put a man into orbit, when on February 20, 1962, John Glen circled three times in Friendship 7 and splashed down safely into the Atlantic. To this, Russia said, “oh yes?” and launched the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space on June 16, 1963. Take that!

Both countries continued to advance their technology, but again the Russians took the lead when they launched a three-man mission on October 12, 1964. Lynden Johnson, who took over as US President following Kennedy's assassination in 1963, dedicated the continuing moon mission to his predecessor. The US Gemini 1 programme advanced spectacularly between 1965 and 1966, pioneering a space rendezvous mission with two crafts, an endurance record of 14 days in space, the first docking between two ships, and working outside a space craft while still in space.

The race continued with both sides playing tricks on each other. In September 1968 the Russians sent a craft around the moon with tortoises onboard. The US was misled to think that they heard voices coming from the space craft. This fired them up to hurry their programme, and on December 24 that year three American men circled the moon. Looking down at the Earth 250,000 miles away Commander Frank Borman radioed a Christmas Eve message, reading from Genesis one: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” As he later explained, “I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than us — that there was a God, and that there was indeed a beginning.”

By April 1969, America was ready. But unknown to them, Russia was not. Their programme had faltered, and it had become a one-horse race. On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin lifted off, chartering their entry into space and into human history, Their target, the moon. The world, including Moscow, watched breathlessly. From my room in Mona Heights that Sunday afternoon I cranked up my radio to follow the drama.

After three days in orbit, the Lunar Module Eagle separated from the command unit, and slowly, but surely, Armstrong and Aldrin manoeuvred their craft into position, hovering over the moon's surface, while Collins remained in orbit in the Command/Service Columbia. In the eerie silence of outer space the duo landed quietly in the Sea Of Tranquility. The time was 3:17 pm, July 20, 1969. Then after a further six hours, Neil Armstrong became the first man in human history to step on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were his first words.

One-fifth of the world's population had witnessed that seminal moment. The Americans had won the race to the moon.

Six years later the Space Race officially ended with a momentous meeting when an American Apollo spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with a Russian Soyez 19 spacecraft in outer space. The three USA astronauts and two Russian cosmonauts shook hands, exchanged gifts, and visited each other's ships. It marked the official end of the famous Space Race competition between two Cold War rivals for supremacy in spaceflight capability.

It was an awesome moment, bringing to a close almost three decades of intense rivalry between the world's two most powerful nations. It had been a period when the world had been led to the brink of nuclear war, the heights of engineering brilliance, supreme arks of technology, and universal celebrations of the human capacity to reach beyond borders.

Was it worth it, and what did they find? What you may not know is that for many of the early astronauts, they found religious faith. Before they took their first steps on the moon, “Buzz” Aldrin and Armstrong pulled out a Bible, a silver chalice, and sacramental bread and wine. There, on the moon, their first act was to celebrate the Christian communion. Centuries before, King David had laid back in his tent and looked up at the beauty of the skies: “The heavens declare the glory of God,” he wrote “and the firmament showeth His handiwork”. As John Glen said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is, to me, impossible.”

Good luck to Dr Louis Ray Harris, and to Jamaica.

 

— Lance Neita is a public relations writer and consultant. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com