The Final Frontier

Most boomers recall the dawning of the U.S. space program with national pride and patriotic aplomb. Yet many of us were too young to be fully aware that we had entered a Space Race with the Soviet Union. The facts were, we weren’t the first into space, and we were getting further behind.

The Soviets had a great deal of success in the late 50s and early 60s. They were the first to launch a satellite into orbit (Sputnik 1, in 1957). That prompted a response from the newly-minted National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in the form of Explorer 1 in 1958 — and the Space Race was on.

NASA had announced an ambitious program of launching a man into space and ultimately orbiting the Earth. Thus, the Mercury Program was established (1958-63). Seven “astronauts,” as the U.S. spacemen were to be called, were chosen from among military pilots to participate in the program.

But the Soviets beat them to it, launching Yuri Gagarin (the Soviets named their spacemen “cosmonauts”) into orbit and safely back to Earth on April 12, 1961 (Vostok 1). One month later, Alan Shephard became the first American into space (on board Freedom 7). His mission, however, amounted to little more than a slingshot into space and a fall back to Earth — there was no attempt at an orbit yet.

The U.S., feeling the growing embarrassment of “second place,” responded through the president of the United States. In April of 1961, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba pretty much started the Cold War, according to some historians. Now the Space Race was going to enter the political maelstrom. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy gave a speech before a Joint Session of Congress in which he laid down to NASA the challenge of sending a man to moon and back again. As if that weren’t a daunting enough challenge for a team that had yet to send a man into orbit, Kennedy set a deadline on the program — the end of the decade.

Building on the success of Alan Shepherd’s Mercury mission, NASA launched Gus Grissom into space in July of 1961. His was another preliminary mission — there would be no attempt yet at establishing an orbit around the Earth. It wasn’t until February of 1962 that the U.S. sent Astronaut John Glenn into Earth orbit aboard the Friendship 7 — a full nine months after the Soviets had completed the feat.

That same year, 1962, was an important one in boomer musical history. The communications satellite Telstar 1 was launched into orbit. Composer Joe Meek immortalized the moment with an instrumental song every boomer can recognize. “Telstar” was originally recorded by The Tornadoes. It went to number one in the U.K., and was the first single by a British band to ever hit the U.S. Billboard Top 100. Then in 1963, it was covered by The Ventures, perhaps the version most boomers will recognize.

John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule. Photo courtesy of NASA.
John Glenn enters the Friendship 7 capsule on Feb. 20, 1962. Astronauts were allowed to name their own crafts in the Mercury Program. Each had chosen to use the number 7 in their naming structure to reflect that they -- the original seven astronauts -- were a team. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Mister Boomer remembers being in grade school during the Mercury missions. A black & white TV sitting on an AV cart was wheeled into the classroom every time there was a launch. A second class of students was ushered in to sit on the floor between the desk rows, faces turned to the TV. Then, along with our nun teachers, we quietly sat in awe as we witnessed the historic events unfold, as they happened.

The Friendship 7 launch holds a special, particular place in Mister B’s memory banks. The summer after the successful mission, Mister Boomer’s family hopped into the car to visit Washington, D.C. The family visited the monuments, U.S. Treasury, sat in on a session of the House of Representatives for a few minutes, and visited the White House. Impressive, memorable visits for a young child, to be sure. But none could capture the imagination as much as a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There, Mister Boomer saw the Friendship 7 capsule — the same one he had seen in the launch, on TV. Looking like an inverted top, it sat on a platform, with wooden stairs leading directly to it. Walking up the stairs, visitors could not only touch the louvered exterior of the capsule, but peer inside through the small window. There, a mannequin astronaut in full gear was visible in the one-man pilot seat. This surprised and frightened the young Mister B at first, but then he was struck by the incredibly tiny and tight space John Glenn had inside his capsule. Walking down the stairs, Mister Boomer noticed the charred exterior of the spacecraft. The pattern of re-entry had left a visible trail in blackened flames. He couldn’t resist running a finger over the darkened side, only to find there was no charcoal-char residue at all. It was completely burnt into the metal, a permanent testimony to the day.

For Mister Boomer, that was it. He followed every space mission, as many boomers did, up to the moon landing in July of 1969 and beyond. With President Kennedy’s challenge met, the U.S. had overtaken the Soviets in the Space Race. And boomers had stories that stirred images of the final frontier that today’s generation can’t even fathom. We were there at the beginning, boomers!

What great memories of the space program do you have? Do you still have a copy of “Telstar”? Is it by The Tornadoes or The Ventures?

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