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NASA engineer: US wasn't first to moon 'by much'

100518 Langley

Terry Nienaber (left), an aerospace engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, explains a button-depress tool he helped design for astronauts to Eric Henderson, during a "World Space Week" event at the Pasquotank Library last week.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Friday, October 12, 2018

The U.S. space program’s achievement of putting the first man on the moon in 1969 is vividly retold in the current Hollywood film, “First Man.” But little known is the fact the Soviet Union almost achieved a manned lunar mission first.

According to Terry Nienaber, an engineer with NASA at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Langley, Virginia, the then-USSR “actually beat us point and step and point and step ... in the space race” and had sent a Soviet spacecraft in orbit around the moon just hours before Apollo 11 took off on its historic mission.

Apollo 11 mission Commander Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon’s surface in July 1969, achieving the goal President John Kennedy had set for NASA by the end of the 1960s. While the U.S. was the first on the moon, “We didn’t make it first by much,” Nienaber said.  

That was one of the historical tidbits Nienaber shared about the U.S. space program during a talk he gave at the Pasquotank County Library last week. The library was celebrating annual “World Space Week.”  

Nienaber talked about how the growth of the U.S. space program accelerated during the Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR following World War II.  

American leaders' thinking at the time was that space dominance was critical because the first nation to achieve orbital velocity would have a militaristic, strategic advantage over the other.

"Everybody was really worried about that, but they also didn't want to escalate the military threat," Nienaber said. "So, it (aerospace) was essentially initialized as a peaceful technology."

In 1957, the Soviets stunned the U.S. and the rest of the world by launching the satellite Sputnik. They then followed up by putting the first dog into orbit on Sputnik 2. By 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human to travel into space and back, causing more concern for U.S. officials.

Apollo 11 and its crew’s walk on the moon, however, cemented U.S.’ leading role in space exploration and travel. 

It wasn’t until 1975 that the U.S. and USSR embarked on their first joint space mission — the in-space docking of Apollo 18 and the Soviets’ Soyuz 19.

Six years later, NASA launched its first reusable launch vehicle, the space shuttle Columbia. Americans got used to routine flights of NASA’s shuttles until the Challenger explosion in 1986 reminded them how dangerous space travel can be.  

Nienaber recalled how growing up in the 1980s, Americans were paranoid about the threat of nuclear war with the USSR. He said the two countries’ space programs became a way for them to show national pride while also shaking hands as colleagues and collaborators.

"In a similar way, the space program has become that with most of the countries," he said.

Nienaber noted a number of positive examples of international cooperation when it comes to space exploration. The Outer Space Treaty, agreed to by the U.S. and other countries in 1967, requires signatories to use space for peaceful, not militaristic purposes. Then in 1988, the collaborative International Space Station was launched by a Russian rocket to orbit Earth.

Asked by an audience member whether NASA now competes against private corporations when it comes to manned space travel, Nienaber recounted the U.S.’ space program’s recent history.

He noted that President George W. Bush expressed his goal during the 2000s for the U.S. to return to the moon by 2020 and to begin planning for manned missions to Mars. The problem for NASA at the time, however, was the great expense of those missions. Ultimately, Nienaber said, the cost of returning to the moon turned out to be too expensive.

After President Barack Obama was sworn in, he realized the country was in recession and a decision about NASA’s future had to be made. 

Nienaber said the space station's life was extended under Obama but NASA’s space shuttle program was retired. The U.S.’ thinking at the time, he said, was to let private corporations, who had started to build commercial rockets capable of space flight, to take on the role of shuttling U.S. astronauts to the space station. He said NASA’s new role would include exploring beyond the Earth's orbit and focusing on technologies to get Americans there better, faster and safer.

He noted that Obama's main objective was to allow private companies to invest their dollars and to own their space technology. Meanwhile, the U.S. government would concentrate on proven technologies.

"So, we've tried to let industry come in and figure it out and invest their own capital in it," he said of space flight.

As a result, plans to return to the moon were put on hold, Nienaber said. Then late last year, President Donald Trump announced America's astronauts will be returning to the moon. The president also announced plans for a separate branch of the military he described as a “space force.”

Nienaber said with the space station now complete, NASA is “in position now to invest in the next sort of big objective.”

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