The Transcendent Space Race

The passing of Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, prompts some musing about one of the Cold War's most visible battlegrounds: the space race. I was born in 1957, the year that Sputnik was launched. Sputnik sent an instant shock wave of fear through America. The launch signaled that the Soviets might dominate space and be able to initiate a nuclear attack from weapons platforms orbiting the globe, far out of the reach of any defensive weapons the U.S. could then deploy. The launch set into motion a number of initiatives: the emphasis of the country's public school curriculum shifted to math and science; NASA was founded to focus our efforts to match and hopefully exceed the Soviet Union's achievement;  and, on the cultural improvement front, someone eventually penned "Khrushchev the Bald-Headed Russian," which we sang to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." While the space race was at least initially driven by fear, at some point national pride must have eclipsed fear. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the space race represented the era's version of Americans in search of new heroes and a new frontier. I don't know how often something born of fear undergoes such a metamorphosis; I'm sure there are other examples. But I do know that for many of us during those years, men like Scott Carpenter were larger than life, and I know that the country's collective drive to achieve remarkable things in space transcended the Cold War squabble that was the space race's genesis.