Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Firsts in Space

The nation yesterday commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon. I have early childhood memories of watching on TV the lunar rover during a subsequent Apollo mission.

Before thumping ourselves on the back too hard, we should remember that the space race was a technological battle with the Soviet Union in which the U.S. got whipped early on and often. And there were an incredible number of failed missions (primarily unmanned vehicles) along the way. It's a story whose history shows us just how difficult it is to develop new technologies.

Neil de Grasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, in a lecture at Harvard last year titled "Delusions of Space Enthusiasts," pointed out that the Soviet Union achieved many milestones:
  1. First satellite in orbit;
  2. First animal in space;
  3. First human in space;
  4. First woman in space;
  5. First black person in space;
  6. First to land on the Moon (both impact and hard landing);
  7. First lunar rover;
  8. First to photograph the far side of the Moon;
  9. First to photograph Earthrise from the Moon;
  10. First to land on Venus;
  11. First to land on Mars;
  12. First space walk;
  13. First space station;
  14. Longest time logged in space; and
  15. Most reliable manned vehicle.
The U.S., on the other hand, achieved these milestones:
  1. First to land human on the Moon;
  2. First to cross the Asteroid Belt; and
  3. First to achieve hyperbolic velocity.
"We have defined the space race in a way that makes us at the top," said Dr. Tyson. "There is a delusion to remember ourselves as somehow pioneers above all else."

Image of Luna-2, the first space vehicle to (crash) land on the Moon -- nearly 50 years ago on September 13, 1959.

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