Recently declassified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) present a clearer picture of the all-encompassing and wide reaching efforts to win the Cold War’s Space Race. George Washington University’s National Security Archive, a repository of declassified U.S. documents described as the world’s largest nongovernmental collection, unveiled a new batch of once highly sensitive CIA documents in a release titled, “Soldiers, Spies and the Moon: Secret U.S. and Soviet Plans from the 1950s and 1960s.”
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It should surprise no one, and yet, the passing of the first man on the moon enabled space – and the American way of life – to be yanked into the public fold with a degree of hubris that should turn any human off extra-terrestrial missions. Tributes are flooding various forums, extolling Armstrong as human, humane and gifted. These invariably leave out as much as they tell. Personal reminiscences of the man have been effusive, which demonstrates that cardinal rule that he who says little in public life shall have much spouted about him.
Has space exploration just become too costly, politically unappealing, or both? In the 1960’s, the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union, whose publics where fueled by the tensions of the Cold War, found themselves as pioneers of space travel and exploration technology. Now with a space race that’s no more, the political will and pursuit of going into “the beyond” has garnered a lackluster appeal by policymakers. And it’s showing in both Washington and Moscow. This past September at a recent Congressional hearing, Neil Armstrong, the iconic figure in space exploration history, had nothing but rebuke for the current NASA program, calling it “embarrassing and unacceptable.” His fellow colleague Eugene Cernan described the current U.S. space program as “on a path to decay.”
Their concerns and criticism follow the final flight of the Discovery shuttle back in February. The event marked an end to the U.S. manned space shuttle missions. In addition to axing programs, NASA’s 2011 budget has also seen a $240 million cut from last year’s numbers. Even unmanned projects such as the Mars Mission, which would send a rover onto the red plant’s service, is under threat of being shelved due to Congressional budget constraints.
When the space shuttle Atlantis returns to earth in a few days it will be the culmination of a decades long NASA program that allows Russia to chalk up the Space Race as a win, by default. While important in the Russian psyche, this win may prove to be a mere footnote in the history of U.S.-Russian relations. Russia, then the Soviet Union, was the first to reach space on April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth in his Vostok spacecraft.
Previously, Russia’s Luna 2 became the first unmanned aircraft to reach the moon in 1959. However, Russia was bested, in embarrassing and televised fashion by the United States, when Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 set down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. He was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978. While Gagarin received a hero’s welcome and has had statues dedicated to him, it is Armstrong who was immortalized in the recent Transformers movie.