I can’t pay no doctor’s bill/ (But Whitey’s on the moon)/ Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still/ (while Whitey’s on the moon),” declared the American performance poet Gil Scott-Heron.
In the run-up to this week’s 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the heavenly body nearest to our earthly abode, it may seem churlish to recall the context of that undou-btedly tremendous accomplishment. It tends to get short shrift in the plethora of documentaries, books and articles commemorating that signal achievement, which is hardly surprising.
But there was a context. The nation that mesmerised the world by putting men on the moon was not only riven by economic and racial disparities at home.
Perhaps most egregiously of all, it was devoting a lot more billions of dollars to creating craters in Vietnam than it was to investigating them on the moon.
And, of course, there was another crucial context: the Cold War. The first Sputnik in 1957 had both shocked and fascinated America. Shortly after John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to orbit Earth in April 1961. America’s Alan Shepard was blasted into space the following month, but his 15 minutes of suborbital flight, compared with Gagarin’s 108-minute orbit, tended to confirm the impression that the Soviets were far ahead.
Yet when Kennedy, to his credit, broached the subject of space collaboration, including a possible joint moon mission, with Nikita Khrushchev later that year, the latter baulked at the idea.
Kennedy repeated his offer at the United Nations, after he had proposed landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, but he was assassinated not long afterwards, and Khrushch-ev was deposed the following year. If Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, was half-hearted about the idea, the Nasa rejected the notion out of hand. If the Soviets were reaching for the moon, the Americans were determined to beat them to it.
And they did, after being beaten in the race to the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova), and the first spacewalk. The Soviets perhaps intended to upstage their rivals with an unmanned moon landing whereby soil samples would robotically be obtained without risking any lives. But several of their Luna craft either crashed — including one disaster while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were actually on the surface — or shot past the moon. The mission was accomplished the following year. In their case, incidentally, the key rocket scientist was an ex-Nazi by the name of Wernher von Braun.
The immensely powerful Saturn V rocket that propelled Apollo 11 into space was his brainchild, just like the V-2 rockets — the V stood for the German equivalent of vengeance — that failed to save Adolf Hitler’s regime but wreaked havoc in London and elsewhere during the final phases of the Second World War....