The Space Race and exploring the unknown


For those of us born before the late 1960’s, it was an event we will never forget. Like a handful of other history-shaping events that have taken place over that same timeframe, I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I was a young kid at summer camp in Washington state when Neil Armstrong’s crackly message from the moon was broadcast to the world: “That’s one small step for man—one giant leap for mankind.” An estimated 500 million people around the world vicariously experienced this historic event.

This significant incident inspired a generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math)-oriented kids—myself included—to pursue the education required to support NASA’s space program. For me, that path involved pursuing graduate studies in aerospace and mechanical engineering at Stanford University, and working with NASA on spacesuit design for future Moon and Mars missions. I also spent more than a decade doing astronaut training and working as a spaceflight test crewmember with Lockheed Martin on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station programs. I got to do a lot of really fun simulation and training activities, including flying jets, jumping out of planes, diving in neutral buoyancy tanks, working in spacesuits, and flying aboard NASA’s KC135 “Vomit Comet.”

As we reflect on the Apollo program, it’s worth noting some of the events that—had they gone differently—could have led to very different outcomes on the world stage. The Space Race (1957-1975) between the US and the Soviet Union was an outgrowth of the Cold War. During this era, each of the two countries attempted to assert its prowess (scientifically, technologically, and economically) in various domains including land, sea and air, and eventually extending into space. In some ways, the American public viewed the Cold War and the Space Race in particular as a battle between good (represented by democracy) and evil (represented by communism).

The Soviet launch in 1957 of Sputnik, the first ever artificial earth-orbiting satellite, followed by Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961 as the first human to fly in space seemed to give the Soviets an early edge in the Space Race. These Soviet “firsts” prompted President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 “we choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University in Houston. In it, JFK pledged his commitment to America’s technological progress and established space exploration as a national priority, affirming the role of NASA, which had just been established in 1958, and effectively kicking off the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo human spaceflight missions.

On July 21, 1969, the same day as the successful Apollo 11 moonwalk, news broke about Russia’s Luna 15 unmanned spacecraft crashing into the moon, emphasizing the challenges of any moon landing. In a similar way, the Apollo 13 mission just a year later, was plagued with a whole series of technical problems, and nearly turned into a loss-of-life category disaster. The Apollo 13 moon landing was aborted, and Mission Control’s focus turned to solving the complex problems standing between the ailing spacecraft and a safe return to earth. Back on planet Earth, Congress passed a resolution asking Americans to pray for the astronauts’ safe return home.

These two Apollo missions (11 and 13) with very different outcomes brought people around the world together in a way we’ve rarely—if ever—seen before or since. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that all this happened so long ago, and that we humans haven’t travelled any further than the moon since then. Wernher von Braun, known as the father of modern rocketry, stated during the Apollo days that from a technological standpoint we should have been able to put a human on Mars by 1985, given the national resolve to do so. These observations more or less beg the question of why we humans haven’t ventured any further than the moon by now.

astronaut standing on the moon

Even in the early days of the Space Race, there were intense debates over the wisdom, cost, risk and benefit of human vs. unmanned spaceflight. Even though much of the uncertainty surrounding the technological and physiological challenges of human spaceflight has now dissipated through the experience accumulated over the past five decades, that same cost-benefit question still persists. It all really boils down to the simple question: “Is human spaceflight worth the cost?”

Given the potential risk to human life and the added weight and cost of human spacecraft and their life support systems, many aerospace commentators still insist that unmanned space exploration is the best path forward. We have seen the great strides that have been made in unmanned exploration with the various Mars orbiters and rovers, as well as space probes doing fly-bys of outer planets, eventually making their way to the farthest reaches of our solar system.

There are indeed many complex challenges involved in keeping astronauts safe, healthy and productive in space, especially for the length of time a roundtrip to Mars would take, let alone any further destinations. On the “pro-humans” side of the argument, many assert the importance of the uniquely human ability to innovate in real time in response to unanticipated challenges, as well as the innate human drive to discover the unknown, and the heightened public engagement with relatable human explorers, as opposed to impersonal and faceless automation and robotics. On top of all this, numerous life-improving technology spin-offs for health, medicine, food, computing, transportation and other areas have derived from both human and unmanned spaceflight endeavors.

Personally, I think it’s in our DNA to explore. In fact, I might even go so far as to assert that it’s part of our Imago Dei created-ness. It seems to me that wonder, awe, inspiration and exploration are deeply connected. Having had the privilege of working on the Hubble Space Telescope, I’ve always been inspired by the amazing images of God’s creation that it has captured over the years, as well as by simply gazing at the sky on clear, dark nights. For all of human history, the night sky has had a similar effect on people, making us think, feel and wonder about life’s big questions; questions like, “Where did all this come from?” “How big is it?” “What’s it all made of?” “How long has it been here?” “Why am I here?” “Is there anyone else out there?” The Hubble Space Telescope has helped answer the scientific aspects of some of these questions, but many go deeper—and more personal—than that.

Proverbs 25:2 reads, “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honor of kings to search it out.” It’s in our innate human nature to want to try to figure things out—to understand everything we possibly can. Is it possible that the awe and wonder we feel when we look at the night sky are at least in part purposed by God to engage us in this interplay, to lure us into searching out not only the wonders of His creation, but also to beckon us to search out God Himself as the source of all creation? Perhaps this idea is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”

For me, awe and wonder are a great starting place for inspiring us all to seek, learn and explore all we can about God and the universe we inhabit. Looking back across five decades to the actual day of that first moon landing, that little girl at summer camp never would have expected to be in the middle of this important conversation involving science, technology, space exploration and faith, but our great God is full of serendipitous surprises, and following him is always an adventure!


Leslie Wickman
About the Author

Leslie Wickman

Dr. Leslie Wickman is an internationally respected research scientist, engineering consultant, author, and inspirational speaker. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She later earned a Master's degree in Aero/Astro Engineering, as well as a doctoral degree in Human Factors and Biomechanics, from Stanford University. For over a decade she worked as an engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space in Sunnyvale, CA. While there, she had the opportunity to work on NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station Programs, and received commendations from both NASA and contractors for her contributions. During this time, she was designated as Lockheed's Corporate Astronaut. Following Lockheed Martin, she moved to WET Labs in University City, CA, where she was instrumental in the development and programming of the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, NV. She also spent several years working as a research scientist with The RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA, on technical and political aspects of various national defense issues. After spending the last fifteen years in academia, she is excited about her new role as Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation, as the organization seeks to promote the thoughtful dialog between science and faith (asa3.org). In addition, she serves as an engineering specialist on various aerospace projects. Currently, her primary research project involves investigating the effects of climate change on national security issues. Leslie played women's professional football with the California Quake (Women's World Bowl Champions in 2002), as well as pro-am beach doubles volleyball with the FIVB and CBVA. She has traveled with Athletes in Action Volleyball to Bolivia, Brazil, and South Africa. Dr. Wickman is also an ordained minister.
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