Milestones to the Moon: The Real Story of the Space Race

Daniel Breen – Brandeis University

When many of us think of the “Space Race,” we conjure images of President Kennedy’s stirring 1961 call to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, followed by John Glenn’s orbital flights in Friendship 7 and culminating—seven years later—with Neil Armstrong’s famous “giant leap” on to the Moon’s surface. In fact, the space race with the Soviet Union was much more than this, and it was a “race” that could easily have been lost. As late as 1966, in fact, the Soviets appeared to most of the world to be very much ahead.

How did the United States win the space race? This presentation will answer that question by telling the story of three key events, without which a captivated world would never have heard Armstrong’s unforgettable assurance that “the Eagle has landed.” We will begin with the last of the great Soviet “firsts:” Alexei Leonov’s near-disastrous walk in space, and then continue with the history-making voyage of Gemini VIII, in which Armstrong displayed the remarkable poise under extreme pressure that made him the leading choice to lead Apollo 11. After briefly relating the story of Apollo 8—in its own way, perhaps the most gripping of all the episodes of the Space Race—we will end the presentation with Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, as they make their descent to the lunar surface.