Red Sky: America’s Greatest Defeat

Dazed and disappointed, President John Kennedy sat alone in the oval office on the afternoon of April 12th, 1961. He had just approved the final draft and the dispatch of a telegram for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, congratulating him and his country on the “safe flight of the astronaut in man’s first venture into space…and the Soviet scientists and engineers who made [the] feat possible.” Earlier that day, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had completed an orbit of the earth and lived to tell about it. It was a jubilant occasion – a tremendous feat of technological ingenuity. Some might even call it a miracle. But for the United States, it was a problem. The Soviets had won again, and the American president had had enough.

With diplomatic temperatures rising in the thick of a Cold War, another rocket-powered victory for the Soviet Union came as a striking blow to the American psyche. Just three and a half years earlier, the Soviets had successfully launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit – the first earthly object in space. Not even a month later, Sputnik II carried the first life form into space – a mongrel named Laika. For the common man, it was clear that the United States was losing the race to space, and for many in positions of power, this meant they were losing the war. One might justifiably wonder how such defeats were possible. After all, this was the indomitable United States of America. But contrary to the popular perception of dominance when compared to the Soviet Union, the United States had failed as a result of their disregard for the pivotal role of its central government, impeding the genius of the acclaimed German-American scientist Wernher Von braun, and failing in the employment of dangerous experimental risk.

Within a week’s time the president had sent a memorandum to vice-president Lyndon Johnson regarding the matter. It hadn’t taken long for President Kennedy to realize that NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – established in response to the “Sputnik crisis” by President Eisenhower in 1957) had dramatically fallen behind. In the memo he asks, “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win? How much additional would it cost? Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs? If not, why not? Are we making maximum efforts? Are we achieving necessary results?” These questions suggest a profound disconnection between the federal government and the space program.

Within a week, a six-page response had arrived from the office of the vice-president detailing the pitiful state of the American space program. Johnson observed: “This country should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regardless of their appreciation of our idealistic values, will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader – the winner in the long run. Dramatic accomplishments in space are being increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership.” Then, in response to the president’s questions sent prior, we read the most haunting statement of all: “We are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership.”

The first step, the Kennedy administration realized, towards making headway with the Soviets was to better use the resources they already had – something the government had neglected to do since NASA’s inception. Since the end of World War II, German rocket engineer Dr. Wernher von Braun had been living in the United States, recruited to work for the infant American space program. Having formerly been associated with the Nazis designing rockets used for missiles, von Braun was treated with hostility, especially from American military leaders. Fully aware of von Braun’s scientific genius, the US government refrained from employing it – knowing that the space program, powered by “Nazi” rockets would not bode well with the American public. Instead of using von Braun’s Redstone rocket to launch the first American satellite into space, they opted for the Navy’s Vanguard. Little did they know that the Vanguard wasn’t ready, and in the meantime the Soviets put Sputnik into space.

Von Braun was furious. “We knew they were going to do it. Vanguard will never make it. We have the hardware on the shelf. We can put up a satellite in 60 days.”  Michael D’Antonio writes, “…von Braun reached this point of exasperation after more than a full year of being constrained from using a rocket that was waiting to fulfill its purpose. [His] mood wasn’t helped when, after Sputnik I, Soviet scientists said that even they couldn’t understand why the great von Braun and his machine had been grounded. Had a Redstone been chosen instead of Vanguard, [they] added, ‘You would have saved so much time, not to mention troubles and money.’”

By 1960, the US government had made recompense with von Braun and began using the Redstone rocket as it prepared to put a man into space – something which at that time, the Soviets had not done. After several tests between November 1960 and January 1961, including the successful launch of Ham the astrochimp, all arrows pointed to putting a man into space – and doing it soon. America was in the lead, but the enthusiasm was short lived. Dr. von Braun was keen on a few problems that had occurred during Ham’s flight in January, and because of this he was hesitant to proceed with the manned flight in March. The odds of a successful mission, he explained, were between 88 and 98 percent. If they delayed, the Soviets could win. If they went ahead and suffered a fatality, the entire enterprise could be destroyed. He informed NASA that one more test flight was needed, and the manned flight was scheduled for April 25th. It is important to acknowledge von Braun’s concern for the protection of American lives, but when the last test launch in March resulted in a flawless flight, citizens and authorities alike were enraged. The Russians launched Cosmonaut Gagarin on April 12th. The decision had cost them the race.

Throughout the remainder of the decade, motivated by President Kennedy’s declaration of the decision to go to the moon by the end of it, the United States made tremendous strides in engineering. The truth is that due to a variety of problems, namely engineering setbacks, political strife, lack of resources, and the death of the “Chief Designer” Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the Soviet space program imploded – culminating ultimately in Apollo 11 landing on the moon, and staking on it an American flag – immortalizing American superiority in space, forever.

In the end, it was the Soviet Union whose victories in the space race motivated the Americans to achieve the greatest of human heights. It was defeat that incited the change necessary to truly innovate, and that spirit endures. Though in the beginning the Americans had failed as a result of their disregard for the pivotal role of its central government, impeding the genius of Wernher Von braun, and failing in the employment of dangerous experimental risk, it was those things that, in time, produced the achievement of the necessary results that President Kennedy so desperately required – adding white and blue to an otherwise red sky.

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