FEBRUARY 18, 1997
Space, the final frontier, has long offered inspiration and a sense of challenge to American citizens. Although reports of Space Shuttle successes have become almost routine, the NewsHour's panel of historians reminds us that the U.S. space program has provided many unearthly magical moments in the past.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now space and American politics and culture. Early tomorrow morning after seven days and five space walks the shuttle astronauts will release a much-improved Hubble space telescope back into orbit nearly 400 miles above the Earth.
ANNOUNCER: Ignition and liftoff. "Discovery" now on its way to service NASA's Hubble space telescope.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The space shuttle "Discovery" lifted off last week on a mission to upgrade and repair the Hubble telescope. It took 12 years to assemble, and with the wear and tear of four years in space, scientists thought it was time for a major overhaul. The "Discovery" crew grabbed Hubble from its orbit 380 miles above the Earth's surface and began their $350 million service call. In five different space walks they installed new equipment that will help scientists see further into the galaxy, and they repaired the Hubble's torn insulation lining. Watching astronauts float like this above the Earth's atmosphere has become almost commonplace, but it's taken a long time to get to this point. In 1959, the National Aeronautical & Space Administration, NASA, unveiled the Mercury project and introduced the nation's first astronauts. Alan Shepard became the first American in space. And when he returned, he got a hero's welcome.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: This decoration which is going from the ground up. Here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The success helped convince President Kennedy to throw more resources into the space effort. In 1961, he decided to ask for the Moon.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Apollo 11 achieved that goal in 1969.
BUZZ ALDRIN, Astronaut: The Eagle has landed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins made it to the Moon, and millions of people watched live on television as Neil Armstrong took his historic steps.
NEIL ARMSTRONG, Astronaut: Houston, I'm on the porch. That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, a new question arose: what next? The answer was Sky Lab, an experiment to test the human capacity for extended stays in space. Next came the unmanned space probes, the "Voyagers," which explored the four major planets in the solar system. Then in the late 1970's, NASA went to Congress to get funding for a reusable space vehicle, the shuttle. Since it's first successful liftoff in 1981, the shuttle has flown over 45 missions. One, in particular, stands out in the national memory.
SPOKESMAN: Challenger, go at throttle up.
ANNOUNCER: One minute fifteen seconds. Velocity 2900 feet per second--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When six astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, a teacher specially trained for the mission, were killed. After the disaster, NASA became more cautious and the shuttle program slowed down. It wasn't space travel's first catastrophe. There had been deaths in fires and the drama of mechanical problems on Apollo 13. But NASA has tried to build achievement on both success and failure. Now though budgets are tight, a Mars probe is hurdling towards that distant planet, and the Hubble telescope, newly refurbished, promises to unlock more secrets of the last frontier.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now a longer view of the impact the space program has had on the American political and cultural landscape. We get it from three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Dr. Joseph Kerwin, a former Naval aviator detailed to NASA. He was director of space and life sciences at the Johnson Space Center. In 1973, he flew on the first Skylab mission. He now is manager of Houston Operations for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space Company. Thank you all for being with us. Doris, this all really began with "Sputnik." It was all about competition with the Russians, wasn't it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: No question. When the Russians launched that first satellite "Sputnik" into space on October 4, 1957, a real shock was delivered to the American system. Lyndon Johnson said as majority leader he looked up at what was once the friendly skies of Texas, he was on the ranch at that moment, and suddenly the whole sky turned menacing.
The "Sputnik" emitted a certain kind of beep-beep for those first few weeks which people could hear if they strained. And radio and television commentators would huddle around and say, listen to the sound that forever separates the old world from the new. And suddenly our scientists started worrying. We used to be ahead of the Russians in science, and now they seem to be ahead of us, and people started worrying that our schools were teaching life adjustment instead of science. So there really seemed to be a feeling that we had slipped badly in our whole competition with the Soviet Union. So then what happened is Eisenhower was really hesitant still, though. Instead of wanting to go forward with a project in space, he thought it was important that we develop rocketry, so that we had a missile that could compete directly in the Cold War. But Lyndon Johnson really and the Democratic leaders in Congress took up that cudgel. Johnson gave this incredible speech, control of space is control of the world; they'll be able to--you know--conquer droughts, floods; they'll be the masters of the universe. And he was responsible for getting NASA, which Eisenhower finally solved, created in 1958, and then the Apollo program from there. So no question, it was born in competition and in many ways, the Cold War was the father of the space program.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I don't want to leave "Sputnik" quite yet. It would be hard for somebody today who didn't live through it to understand just how shocking that was.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, what Doris says is right. I mean, you can't imagine what a stunning blow to the American psyche it was because we'd come out of World War II. It wasn't that much. It was 1957. The Cold War begins in 1945, but really America was--believed in itself as it never has since. We were unchallenged militarily, economically, technologically. We were superior. We thought we had the knowledge to do anything. We had split the atom, and then there began to be the doubt that seeped in.
First the Russians got the atomic bomb. Then they got the hydrogen bomb. American schoolchildren are going down into bomb shelters in their schools. And all of a sudden still we thought we were ahead, and here comes that moment that Doris described so well, and all of a sudden, we were lost in the race to get to space and the Russians were ahead of us. And I remember I was a very young reporter in Washington and one of the things--I would not want to read it today--I was assigned to do a series, "What's Wrong with High Schools," the teaching of math and science. We could do the same thing today, I think, as a matter of fact, but that really was--out of crisis came a national commitment. I think it's important to remember it was born, as Doris says, out of the Cold War, out of competition, out of a fear of annihilation, and we poured the money into it in a way that was picked up by, of course, Kennedy going to the Moon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And out of politics, right, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Out of politics. You know, the odd sub-text was Americans thought that because the Russians could launch "Sputnik," that meant that the Russians could drop a nuclear weapon on Omaha, and "Sputnik" had almost nothing to do with that. And so that is what made this great worry that in 1960 John Kennedy exploited in the campaign by saying, I don't want an America that's second best in outer space. But even Kennedy, after he became President, resisted advice to put more money into men in outer space. He thought that it wasn't a very good use of money. He felt it was probably a better thing to keep the program balanced, as it was under Eisenhower, in space among various goals: science, weather, communications, and also military.
But then you get the Moon landing that is basically the result of the Bay of Pigs and Yuri Grigoren, April of 1961. John Kennedy was the author of a failed invasion of Cuba that made him very embarrassed. He was looking for a way to quickly demonstrate American strength, and also the Russians that month had launched the first man into outer space. Kennedy went back to his science people and said, well, maybe I was too hasty in saying that we shouldn't spend a lot of money on men in outer space, is there somewhere we can beat the Russians? They advised him to put a lot of money into a Moon landing program. And so then Kennedy made that speech we saw on the taped piece: We're going to land on the Moon by 1970. It ultimately cost upwards of $20 billion at a time that the American budget in the mid 1960's was about $100 billion, and in retrospect, despite all the great things about the Moon landing program--and there are many--you have to really wonder whether it was the best use of those resources to put a man on the Moon, especially since one has not been there for the last quarter century.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kerwin, we're talking about all this in the context of the Cold War. But other things were involved too, weren't they?
JOSEPH KERWIN, Former Skylab Astronaut: (Houston) Well, a lot of things were involved. The space program was a great stimulus to technology. It afforded some magical moments in, in history. In everyone's experience, the ones you've covered of Neil landing on the Moon, the first picture of the Earth coming back from far away, but basically it's been an exploration program and a technology program in support of national policy, and I think a very successful one.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kerwin, do you think even without the competition with the Russians, the United States would have taken something like this on? Is it like other explorations in history?
JOSEPH KERWIN: Well, a lot of other explorations in history have been stimulated by the needs of the nations that carried them on. It's true that vigorous, young, healthy nations do take on exploration programs. The Spanish used Columbus' expedition in support of their national needs. Certainly, Jefferson used the Lewis & Clark expedition in support of his perceived need of the United States to expand to the Pacific. There are a lot of parallels there with the space program. It was extremely successful. We have used the space program to win the Cold War, and we are now using it to try to prevent another Cold War in our cooperation with Russia on the international space station. It's still an instrument of policy, and I hope it'll be a successful one.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, it became a big part of popular culture, didn't it?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think there's no question about that. The astronauts who came back from either one of those voyages became national heroes. They really were like the generals from World War II. And there's a certain parallel there with World War II, with common purpose, with organizing our resources, a democracy had beaten out Germany and the axis powers. And there was great pride in that. Now, suddenly, this same large effort had been achieved, and the astronauts seemed like the generals from the generation before. In fact, when Kennedy gave that great speech to the Joint Session of Congress, he said, why the Moon, why not climb the highest mountains, why not fly the Atlantic? Because it's there, as Mallory said, the Everest explorer who had died on the mountain, had finally said, "Why am I climbing Everest? Because it's there." But he said something more than that. He said, "Because I also want to organize our national resources around a common goal." So I think that was all part of the public relations that went to making those astronauts national figures, but we loved it. Why not? It was a great sense of pride.
The only sad moment I remember was being with Lyndon Johnson when the men did finally go up on the Moon. And he was so excited--I happened to be at the ranch--he had a picnic table and a picnic dinner prepared so we could watch the whole thing. But then, as it happened, nobody on television even mentioned his name. They talked about Kennedy starting the program and Nixon finishing it. And he was the one who created NASA. He was the head of the space--he was so mad he turned the television off, and he wouldn't let any of us see it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was. It was a moment in American history where we were united and we did achieve a common purpose like the intercontinental railroad--that's another one--mid 19th century--but which had a really tangible purpose. The intercontinental railroad improved people's lives in a hundred different ways. The problem with the Moon landing program was that it got so much attention in the 1960's that people thought that that was really almost all there was to the space program, and also that it would help to win the Cold War. The Russians basically dropped out of the space race, at least putting a man on the Moon, by the mid 1960's, and the problem was that once men were on the Moon, July of 1969, people sort of thought that's really all there was, and the result was that there was a little bit of disillusionment that this did not lead to all the wonderful things that the Presidents and other leaders had suggested. And the other thing is that as far as NASA and the American space program now, that was so oversold in the 1960's that I think Presidents and NASA administrators ever since have suffered from that fact because it is very hard now to educate Americans about the fact that the space program really should be doing a lot of different things and should be well funded.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kerwin, do you agree with that?
JOSEPH KERWIN: Well, it's a matter of perspective. I--talking about the ticker tape parades with the astronauts in the 60's, I think back to the ticker tape parade for Lindbergh in the 20's, that soon faded. There is--there will never be a time in aviation like the feat of Lindbergh. Today it's the American Airlines strike, but does that mean that aviation has failed? No. It's part of our society now. It's essential to us. I think the space program needs to be part of our society and essential, and we're slowly getting there. The big thing we need now is to make access to space much less expensive.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kerwin, are you saying that it was natural after the excitement of the early years that the--the emphasis on the space program and the excitement that surrounded it would just diminish?
JOSEPH KERWIN: Oh, yes. It was inevitable. And I certainly agree with Haynes that a balanced program is, is needed. And I would like to see, as NASA would, the program move to more and more commercialization. And I think if you look carefully at what's happening in NASA, you will see the ground work for that being laid.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haynes. Oh, go ahead.
JOSEPH KERWIN: The--excuse me--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead, Dr. Kerwin.
JOSEPH KERWIN: No, that's okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: One of the things, we're talking about what happened and why it went away so quickly. Don't forget the Vietnam War intruded; the riots in the cities occurred, and w all remember, all of us around the table, that all of a sudden the debate became, if you can put a man on the Moon, why can't you solve the problems of Watts or poverty or disease, and so you had this guns versus butter, which was the old World War II argument. Now you had it again at home, where do you put your priorities, and I think it was always probably a false argument in some ways because the space program did contribute to technology, to science, and all that, even though it may have been oversold. And now we're sort of groping toward less hyperbole but toward a program that has, as we said earlier, more balance to it.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And one irony is that, as you widen the compass, if you go out a hundred years from now, it could very well be that one of the most important things the United States did near the--or at least in the last portion of the 20th century was land on the Moon. It could be a century from now that so many good things have come from that, that everything else tends to pale.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We take it for granted too. Look at those pictures of the Hubble. We've all seen space walks before. It's stunning, and we just take it for granted, or you'll see these space, interplanetary, the probes now. You can see the planets in a way we've never seen them before. I find that--we're all excited by that, and it is a part of the culture. Look at the "Star Wars" phenomenon. There's a whole generation of Americans have grown up now lining up to see this 20 years later. It's part of their culture.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, do you agree with Michael that when we look back at this part of the century, we may look at the space travel, especially getting to the Moon, as one of the most important things?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know what's possible is suppose that it happened, as Lyndon Johnson had predicted, that other powers had gotten to the Moon and if there had been a possibility of somehow using that in a nefarious way, I mean, I'm not sure that was ever possible, but the fact that a free nation and a democracy did get there and that now they're reaching out for cooperative powers with the Soviet Union, it could have gone in a different direction, and I think that's very important. The other unknown factor is at the time when this original space program was being launched, the developing countries seemed up for grabs between Communist and democratic nations, and the space program seemed an enormous pride in the emblem of the Soviet Union. So that's one of the other things that launched Kennedy into it. So I think it's true--who knows--and maybe the next venture will be Mars, and I think there's something to what Kennedy said, even though if I had my way, I'd rather see that same common purpose go toward poverty in the cities, but, nonetheless, we can't give up on that notion that there is incredible excitement when you're exploring things that are unknown. And I hope our nation never does.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Dr. Kerwin, do you think the space program has as much relevance today as it ever did?
JOSEPH KERWIN: I think so. I think trying to evaluate the program is very difficult in the middle of it. It's sort of like trying to write the history of the United States in 1550, you know, 60 years after Columbus. It's been wonderful. The people, by the way, don't buy the spin-offs or the military purposes. They buy the dream. They remember the Moon landing, and a couple of things can happen. One is that more people can go into space and experience that wonderful feeling and that wonderful view by themselves, and the second thing is that some day we may find life on Mars for sure. And think how that will turn us inside out.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That'll be something. Thank you all very much.