The final frontier

by lestro

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Apollo 11 mission, the absolute apex of the human scientific and engineering experience, the 20th century and American achievement all rolled into one.

To celebrate the event, the NY Times has a long, but exceptional article written by the man who covered the space race the first time around, John Noble Wilford, including details of the run-up to Apollo 11 and what it meant to the country and world, as well as the explanation for how he arrived at one of the single most perfect ledes in the history of print:

I get up and read the articles I have written about the mission up to now. Reporters may feel impelled to write of the next day’s events as the culmination of the space race, the achievement of an ambitious national goal, a historic triumph. I swear to myself that I will not use “historic” in my top paragraph.

I reach for my notebook and try several opening sentences. They must be put on a strict diet. I cross out adjectives. I eliminate clauses that are superfluous and sound too much like heavy music for a movie soundtrack. I begin again: “American astronauts landed.” No, too restrictive and chauvinistic; it will be clear soon enough that the astronauts are American and the goal of a decade has been achieved.

I finally get to the irreducible essence in one short sentence: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”

Literally, the entire world watched and shared in the joy as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on a planetary body that was not our own.

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More statement than science

by lestro

The 20th century was defined by the battle between two global superpowers; the United States and The Soviet Union. Aside from the nuclear missiles and mountains of debt, one of the most noticeable strands of the competition between the two nations was the space race.

After the USSR launched Sputnick, the first man-made satellite launched into orbit, the two nations went back and forth, launching rocket after rocket in an attempt to one-up the other.

In 1961, President Kennedy urged us on to the moon – something for which the Soviets were aiming for as well. As the two programs battled neck in neck, it forced NASA to take chances to try and beat the Ruskies, like sending the first Saturn V rocket we tested all the way to the moon with a trio of intensely brave astronauts strapped to the top.

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