Boomers Grew Up With Spy Culture

As of this writing, the U.S. has shot down four unmanned objects over U.S. airspace in the past two weeks (well, one was in Canada), with one being identified as a Chinese spy balloon. It’s probably safe to say that countries have been spying on one another for as long as there have been countries. Yet for some boomers, like Mister B, the goings-on of the past couple of weeks are a bit of, as Yogi Berra used to say, “Deja vu all over again.”

Boomers grew up hearing about spies all through the Cold War; It permeated our popular culture in toys, books, TV and movies. If anything, spycraft was glamorized in movies like the James Bond series (boomer years 1962-79), while boomers gleefully watched TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-68), I Spy (1965-68) and Mission: Impossible (1966-73). The whole process of spying was also satirized in the TV show, Get Smart (1965-70), as Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show (1959-64) and in the margin-drawn comic, Spy vs. Spy, in Mad Magazine (from 1961 throughout the boomer years).

Yet before the boomer-era infatuation with spies and spying could cement itself into pop culture, a CIA U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia on May 1, 1960. The secretive nature of the plane’s missions meant only partial news made it to the general public at the time. The initial reports released by the government stated a NASA weather plane had gone missing over Turkey. It was Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev who revealed to the world that the plane was not a NASA plane and it had been shot down in Soviet airspace.

The story actually began in 1954, when Dwight Eisenhower was President. Critics of his administration feared that there was a growing gap in military power between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As a result, in November of 1954, Eisenhower secretly authorized that 30 U-2 spy planes be built and delivered to the CIA for the purpose of high-altitude reconnaissance. The U.S. would look to gather data on what capabilities the Soviet Union had, and what they might be building.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers, an Air Force pilot contracted by the CIA, was flying a U-2 plane over Soviet airspace when the plane’s autopilot malfunctioned and he took over manual controls to fly it. When documents on the incident were declassified in 1982, it was confirmed that a near-miss of a Soviet surface-to-air missile took out the tail control of Powers’ plane, causing it to plummet to the earth in a spin. Powers knew he could not eject from the plane under those conditions, but did manage to escape the cockpit and parachute safely to the ground. However, he was not able to destroy the plane, which brought criticism to him from many angles.

His subsequent capture and interrogation by Soviet officials could not have come at a worse time. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, French President Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were set to meet at the Four Powers Paris Summit on May 15, 1960. The first day of the summit, Krushchev demanded the U.S. stop flying spy planes over the Soviet Union. When Eisenhower agreed only to a temporary suspension, the two leaders were furious with each other, and the summit was cancelled the next day.

Powers was tried and convicted of espionage in August of 1960, sentenced to three years imprisonment and seven years of hard labor. After serving one year, in February of 1962 he was exchanged for a Soviet spy imprisoned in the U.S. named Rudolph Abel, on a Berlin bridge between East and West Germany.

Hearings in the U.S. Congress absolved Powers of any wrongdoing. In 1965, he was awarded the CIA Intelligence Star. Powers left the CIA and worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1970, when he became a traffic pilot for radio station KGIL. Next, he became a pilot reporting on traffic for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. On August 1, 1977, his helicopter crashed when heading back after a report, killing Powers and his cameraman.

The U-2 incident and Powers’ release was dramatized in a movie, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks, in 2015.

You’d have to be an earlier-age boomer to recall the incident first-hand, as Mister Boomer does. What do you recall about the Powers’ U-2 incident, boomers?

Boomers Went To the Moon and Back

Boomers dreamt of the Moon throughout their youth … popular music is filled with Moon references. It is safe to say once President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to U.S. scientists in 1961 — to safely land men on the Moon and bring them back to Earth within the decade — boomers were entranced.

Boomers probably did not realize that when Kennedy set out his challenge that the US and USSR were already deeply engaged in the Space Race to the Moon. In fact, when Kennedy spoke, the US had not yet had a successful unmanned mission to the Moon. The USSR had beaten the US with the first satellite launch (1957); first spacecraft to flyby the Moon (1959); first pictures of the farside of the Moon (1959); first man in space (1961); and first woman in space (1963).

During the early to mid-60s, the two countries failed on as many missions as were successful. The US got back in the Moon race with Ranger 7 (July 28, 1964), which intentionally crashed into the Moon and provided the first close-up pictures.

On February 3, 1966, the Soviets had accomplished the first soft landing on the Moon, sending back the first pictures from the surface. The US would need to catch up in a big way. The US countered with its first soft landing on the Moon with Surveyor 1 (May 30, 1966), sending back its own pictures from the surface. Over the next two years, both countries launched additional missions to orbit the Moon and map the surface, especially for scoping out possible landing spots.

The US gained the upper hand with Apollo 8 (December 24, 1968) when astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell Jr. and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the Moon. After looping it ten times, they returned safely to Earth.

Finally, as every boomer remembers, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed safely on the Moon. Neil Armstrong stepped out on the surface, uttering his historic phrase, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin would follow Armstrong to walk on the surface.

One year later, Apollo 12 landed on the Moon (November 17, 1969). Apollo 16 (April 16, 1972) landed another set of astronauts, and Apollo 17 (December 10, 1972) brought the first scientist to walk on the Moon. All told, in the four years of Apollo missions, the US saw 12 men step onto the surface of the Moon. There has not been a human walking on the surface since.

Now, after 40 years, the US is poised to return to the moon with the Artemis program. In Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s sister. Artemis 1, an unmanned spacecraft, is intended to circle the Moon and return. As of this writing, the launch of Artemis 1 has been delayed twice for mechanical issues, and currently, delayed because of Hurricane Ian approaching the west coast of Florida.

Artemis 2, planned for May 2024, will once again bring humans to orbit the Moon for the first time since 1972. If all goes well, Artemis 3 will land on the surface in 2025. NASA has announced that the Artemis program will see the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.

Mister Boomer was not aware of the many unmanned missions to the Moon in the 1950s and early ’60s at the time. He began his infatuation with space travel with the manned Gemini missions. Like most boomers — indeed most people — Mister B’s attention span wavered after the original Moon landing. The distractions of his teen years also contributed to his interest away from the additional Moon landings.

How about you, boomers? Has the Artemis program rekindled your interest in space travel? Were you following every landing on the Moon after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s initial walk?