email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Space Age at 50
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Urged on by President John F. Kennedy's 1961 promise to put a man on the moon 'before this decade is out," NASA's von Braun and the Soviet Union's Korolev sped through a regimen of increasingly complex test flights and orbital missions that culminated in the construction of two giant moon rockets, the American Saturn V and the Soviet N-1, each capable of lifting many tons into space.

Yet tragedy stalked both programs. On January 27, 1967, a fire triggered by an electrical short circuit broke out inside an Apollo space capsule during a training exercise at Kennedy Space Center, killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The Apollo program stalled as Americans reeled from the space effort's first loss of human life.

The Soviet Union's program was already in trouble. Korolev died in 1966, and Soviet lunar efforts languished as the decade drew to a close. The Americans recovered, redesigning the flawed Apollo ship and launching the first manned flight aboard von Braun's giant Saturn V on December 21, 1968. The Soviets, hoping to stay in the race, launched the N-1 on its second test flight on the evening of July 3, 1969. Several hundred feet above the launchpad a metal part shook loose, and seconds later the fully fueled, six-million-pound (three million kilograms) behemoth fell to Earth, exploding in a giant fireball that destroyed the launch complex and Soviet lunar ambitions. Seventeen days later, on July 20, 1969, the Saturn V delivered Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. Excitement in the U.S. reached apogee.

Three years later the golden age was over. The U.S., strapped for cash during the Vietnam War, abandoned the moon to build the space shuttle and, more recently, the International Space Station. The Soviets, plagued by money problems and rivalry, turned away from the moon and focused on long-duration spaceflight in orbiting laboratories, first Salyut, then Mir. Public interest in human spaceflight waned. The political imperative faded with détente and later with the fall of the Soviet Union. But it was probably the relative decline in technological bravura that did the most to kill off the audience. Space travel, perhaps the most visionary of all human endeavors, today derives most of its romance from exploits that ended 35 years ago.

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