The Space Program We Never Knew

By Dennis Myers

Los Angeles Times/July 20, 2019: “The Apollo program’s stunning technical success depended on a culture of strong government leadership, industrial organization, a tolerance for risk and a political environment that do not exist today — even as NASA has insisted it will land humans on the moon in the next five years. The three presidents of the lunar decade — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon — understood that the great adventure included great risks. Today? It might be a little more challenging.”

That’s what the Los Angeles Times had to say last month in an emailing on its special coverage of the lunar anniversary.

Actually, it became more difficult even before the moon landing.  In figures adjusted for inflation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has shown  that the space budget was over $30 billion for only four years — the period of the emotional aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, 1964-68. It has never returned to that level again, and before the landing, all through the Vietnam years, there were complaints about the cost. The NASA budget fell year by year through the Nixon years, until 1975 — Nixon’s final year — when the budget hit its all time low. Since then, the NASA budget has been held down by both presidents and Congress. The post-Kennedy high came in the last year of the first Bush administration, but that did not last.

If anyone wonders why the space agency was kept on a relatively short budget leash, it is helpful to know that the heavy hand of public relations plus coziness among NASA, Life magazine, and CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, also a science aficionado, probably did much to make the public suspicious, with federal budgeters believing that any agency with NASA’s spectacular connections with image-makers didn’t need large budgets. Moreover, the rise of the environmental movement refocused public attention on concerns closer to home.

We have all heard of the high points of the space program.  Below are some low points of the space program’s tawdry history that were mostly covered up at the time they happened, thanks to NASA’s charmed life and subservient scribes, plus some attempts to repair the damage:

April 9, 1959 Three years after the rules were changed to prevent women from becoming astronauts, the first seven U.S. astronauts were named—all white men (in 1963 aeronautical engineer and Air Force test pilot Ed Dwight became the first African-American astronaut candidate, but he was harassed and threatened into quitting two years later. He is now a renowned sculptor).

March 7, 1962 In Alabama, Montgomery black leader Uriah Fields (a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.) called on NASA director James Webb to put an African American on the list of astronauts.

April 13, 1964 After rigging the selection process to exclude women and overlooking Dwight, the U.S. named its astronauts for the first two-person (Gemini) mission — both white men.

June 29 1965 NASA introduced the latest batch of astronauts — six more white guys: Duane Graveline, Joseph Kerwin, Curtis Michel, Edward Gibson, Owen Garriott, and Harrison Schmitt.

July 20 1969 Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon and blew his big line, saying “That’s one small step for man…” instead of “That’s one small step for a man…” (not that it mattered — the actual first words on the moon had already been spoken by either Armstrong or Edwin Aldrin about an hour earlier when the lunar module came to rest on the moon’s surface: “Ascent feed closed; pressure’s holding good, cross feed on, 350 to go,” which is attributed by NASA to both Armstrong and Aldrin in separate transcripts.

August 30, 1983 Twenty-two years after the first human U.S. space flight, the United States finally sent up an African-American astronaut, Dr. Guion S. Bluford Jr., on the Challenger (by then, the, first African American, Cuban cosmonaut Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, had already been sent up by the Soviet in Soyuz 38).

June 5, 1987 Dr. Mae C. Jennison became the first black woman astronaut.

May 12, 2007 The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh awarded honorary degrees to a group of 13 U.S. heroes most people never knew existed — women astronauts who matched and usually exceeded the training benchmarks of male astronauts but who were excluded from going up when the rules were changed (at the behest of, among others, Vice President Lyndon Johnson) to permit only military jet pilots to be admitted to the program (the Soviet Union sent a woman up in 1963; the U.S. not until 1983).

July 23, 2007 U.S. astronaut Clayton Anderson said, “Our spaceship Earth is a beautiful place,” during a space walk on which he dumped more than a half ton of debris into orbit over the earth.

September 6, 2016 Marto Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures was published, bringing into prominence three African-American women whose work in computers solved NASA’s engineering problems but who were denied credit for their enormous contribution to the space program.

Dennis Myers is news editor of the Reno News & Review in Reno, Nevada. He has been a journalist for more than five decades.  In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He is coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada.

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