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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Brickfields, Neil Armstrong and the Moon: The Space Olympics, Part 2.


The "Cold War" commenced with the formulation of the Truman Doctrine at the end of World War II.  The protagonists of this Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union, then embarked on activities to demonstrate their capabilities in difficult areas. The pursuit of knowledge and technology through the exploration of space and the demonstration of sporting prowess in the stadia and pools of the Olympics Games provided some of the main battlegrounds in the ensuing years. 

This post comprises two parts. It (is not essential to, but) is preferred that the reader has already read a previous post entitled: 

  • Baron Pierre De Coubertin, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev & The Space Olympics: Part 1.
Part 1 builds the background and introduces some of the individuals who reappear to play a part in the narrative of Part 2.

The stakes were high for the participants of the Cold War. Competing nations "fought" this Cold War with the intention of cementing their positions of global influence and increasing the footprint of their political ideals. National pride was at stake and strong leadership was critical if victories were desired, pursuing some of the most difficult targets of the time. 

Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth was one such target.

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension but it was also a period of great competition in the area sport and intense rivalry in the domain of space exploration. Many call it the period of the "Space Race".  In my view, this is an understatement. 

This was the era of the Space Olympics

As a boy growing up in Malaysia, I was little interested in the drivers of the Cold War. But I was very keen on sport. The many dimensions and challenges of space travel also stretched my young imagination. This narrative is my understanding of some of the events occurring at the time. Incorporated into the stories of Part 2 are also some anecdotes that provide a clue on how I became interested in the subjects of astronomy and space travel. 

The Cold War concluded in space in 1975 and on Earth, it effectively ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991).

The Cold War in space ended with the Soviet Union and the United States collaborating on a joint project in 1975. It was called the Apollo Soyuz Joint Project. 

First Day Cover commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This signified the beginning of the end of the Cold War on Earth.

My wish is
 that you enjoy both posts (i.e. Part 1 and Part 2) of the Space Olympics.


I hope that international readers of this post allow me a few paragraphs to provide some local context to this story that is wholly non-fictional (as are the contents oall my posts). I live in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. In history classes that I attended as a young student in primary school, we learnt that Kuala Lumpur was founded in the 1850s on the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Translated into the English language, the words “kuala” and “lumpur” when expressed together, mean “muddy confluence”. My early recollections of primary school life, during which time I learnt about the history of Kuala Lumpur, centre around the La Salle School in Brickfields, at the time a Catholic Mission school. 

History and geography were amongst my favourite subjects. Commercial activities in early Kuala Lumpur developed around the mining of tin. In the mid-1800s, Kuala Lumpur was a rough town with gang warfare being a feature of everyday life. Mining contributed to a growing economy and as a result there were struggles for control of the tin revenues and political leadership of the mineral rich lands. Not publicised much in the local history books that we studied in primary school is the fact between 1867 and 1873, a series of conflicts, later to be called the Klang War or the Selangor Civil War took place. These conflicts involved personalities of local royal blood on both sides, aided by the British colonial powers, and the Chinese diaspora, who were controlling the tin trade in the area. 

The most prominent of the Chinese personalities of early Kuala Lumpur was Kapitan Cina, Yap Ah Loy. The “Kapitan Cina” was a title conferred on an individual who was recognized to be in a leadership position within the Chinese community and this was the person who acted as a liaison with the Malay based political system. It was a position that on some occasions required skills of delicate diplomacy but in several instances, as was in the case of Capitan Cina Yap Ah Loy, there was also bloodshed and death. Whilst some history books refer to the conflict around the period, as being “wars”, they only involved several thousand individuals, with Yap Ah Loy eventually playing a prominent role for the winning side. 

The wars ended in 1873 but more strife would befall the residents of Kuala Lumpur as first a fire (that destroyed many of the structures which had been built using “atap” – a local thatch material), followed by a flood in 1881, wiped out much of the growing township. These calamities caused the British Resident, Sir Frank Swettenham, to order that all future buildings in Kuala Lumpur be constructed from clay bricks and tiles. 

Kapitan Cina Yap Ah Loy seized on the opportunity and acquired a large piece of land close to the confluence of the rivers for the setting-up of a brick industry. Yap Kwan Seng, the fifth and last Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur built a kiln in the area that soon came to be known as “Brickfields”. Brickfields then became synonymous with good quality bricks. Over the years, the clay pit soil of the area was used to make millions of quality bricks that were used to develop Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding areas. In fact, it was the Brickfields area that provided 4,000,000 bricks that were later utilized to construct the majestic Sultan Abdul Samad building that sits opposite the Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur. 

Malaysian stamps depicting the Sultan Abdul Samad Building in Kuala Lumpur. About 4,000,000 bricks from the Brickfields area were used to construct these buildings.

Our family lived in close vicinity to the Brickfields area of Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s and early 1970s. So unsurprisingly, my father enrolled me in the La Salle School in Brickfields for primary education and six months before the age of seven I started in Standard One. Till this day I am able to recall the names of my teachers and also the name of our Headmaster, Mr. S. Ratasingam and his able Senior Assistant, Mr. L. A. Fernandez (students just called him, Mr. L. A.). I also recall the locations of all my primary classrooms. They each accommodated about forty-five to fifty students. When I think about my classrooms, I immediately remember two prominent items that were fixed high above the two large blackboards that were installed on the walls at the front of each classroom of the La Salle School in Brickfields - a brown speaker box (with a white knob on one side for volume control) that was a part of the school public address (“PA”) system, and, a crucifix (to remind us that we were students of a Catholic Mission school). 

As old age besets me, I expect that my recollection capacity will likely falter and I will gradually forget the names of my former teachers, one by one. When all those names are forgotten bar one, that last remaining name will be that of Mr. L. A. There is a simple reason for this. Twice a day, every school day, it was his voice that we would hear over the school’s PA system announcing the daily or weekly events or updates. Just before the commencement of one of the daily announcements which would come through a speaker set behind the coarse fabric mesh of the brown speaker box, a short but soft high-pitched shrill would be heard. This was the signal for the teacher in the classroom to temporarily halt the on-going lesson and both students and teacher alike would train their eyes onto the brown speaker box and focus our attention on the information about to be transmitted. The voice of Mr. L.A. would come over the PA system and the announcement would then commence with the following salutation: 

“Your attention please, your attention please. Calling all classes your attention please. Here are the announcements for the day …..”. 

And then the announcements would be read out. There must have been more than a thousand announcements that I heard through this public address system over the five years that I did my primary studies at the La Salle, Brickfields. The opening salutation was always the same each time. The words, the intonation and his delivery hardly ever altered. These announcements concerned all sorts of matters of general school life. When Mr. L.A. was absent for some reason, another teacher would relay the daily announcements to the students via the PA system, but his absence was not a frequent occurrence. 

Only on one occasion do I recall our Headmaster ever making an announcement. It was an announcement that has stayed with me for more than half a century. But more of that announcement later in this post. Reluctantly, at this stage of my post, we need to leave Brickfields and its history. 

Brickfields is sometimes called “Little India” and as I write, I have recurring thoughts of the delicious aromas emanating from the spices used in the Indian cuisine, found in the many restaurants that populate each street of this district. Each restaurant entices potential customers with colourful traditional sweets arranged attractively at its’ entrance. Perhaps “restaurant” is too plush a descriptor to be used in the context of Brickfields but it is genuinely difficult to walk by one of these expanded “holes in the wall” without making an unhealthy investment in a ghee-based delight that would give any Belgian chocolate a good run of the salivary glands. 

I expect that I will not be able to resist repeatedly returning to Brickfields, mentally, physically, and again in this post, but for now, it is time to get somewhat serious, go back a little more in history, so that we can indulge in my favourite topic of space exploration …. again. 

Visionary Leadership 

In my previous post, I wrote about the “Moon Speech” eloquently delivered by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. In retrospect, his message must be appreciated for what it really was and what it subsequently achieved. The United States was behind in the Space Race. The Soviets were repeatedly achieving new milestones in several areas of space exploration, but their goals were never pre-disclosed. Instead, once achieved, the result would be announced in a grand, public manner, leaving the U.S. authorities embarrassed and the American public in dismay. 

These five stamps from the nation of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) show the evolution of the rockets over the years required to go to the Moon. The rocket on the bottom right is the Saturn V. Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were instrumental in the design of all these rockets. President John Kennedy is also provided prominence as he was the visionary who decided boldly that the Moon would be the target of the United States.

President Kennedy rewrote the rules of engagement. By declaring in an upfront and public manner that the moon was the American target, he shifted focus from the fact that the U.S. was behind in near Earth, space exploration activities and built excitement around the challenges of landing a human on the moon (and then returning this individual safely back to Earth). Here was an endeavour of a different magnitude in difficulty. It would be like taking a 100-meter sprinter and having to prepare this person to run a marathon within a fixed timeline. This was a challenge in which both countries would be starting the journey from the same departure point. He made this a matter of national pride. 

The results of the 1964 Olympics, held in Tokyo may have been a manifestation of such nationalistic pride starting to build in all spheres of American endeavour. Gene Krantz, Flight Director of many of the future Apollo missions to the Moon would later entitle his famous book on the Apollo Moonshot: “Failure is not an option”. 

Gene Krantz: Flight Director during the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Featured here on a stamp from the nation of Mali - a country in Africa. For Gene Krantz, "Failure was not an option".

Imagine the embarrassment befalling the United States if they had lost the ultimate race in which they had initially set the rules! The pressure to perform was enormous. The pride of a nation was at stake. Competition from the Soviets was intense. The lives of astronauts were on the line. The timeline had been set and publicly disclosed. There was no turning back. Indeed, failure was not an option! 

Project Definition 101 

To provide an idea of the gap that would have to be closed between the early 1960s and the time when a human actually walked on the moon, it would be instructive to consider a problem faced by Alan Shepard as he waited to be launched into space in his “Freedom Seven” space capsule, sitting atop the Redstone rocket that had been designed by Dr. Wernher von Braun. Because the entire journey into space and back was only expected to take less than an hour, Shepard's suit did not have any provision for the elimination of bodily wastes. After being strapped into the capsule's seat, launch delays kept him in that suit for eight hours. Shepard's endurance gave out before launch, and he was forced to empty his bladder into the suit. This promptly, electrically shorted-out the medical sensors attached to the suit to track the astronaut's health condition during the flight. 

Alan Shepard: First American in space. The stamp is from the Central Asian country of Bhutan. 

This precipitated the fundamental question: If basic problems such as these had not yet been solved to put a single astronaut into space, imagine the range of technical issues that would emerge and require resolution to fly three astronauts to the moon, land, take-off again and return them safely back to Earth. This adventure was estimated to take approximately ten days – a big leap from the sub-sixty minute journeys that were the extent of the available technology in the early sixties! 

One of the early decisions that had to be made revolved around the minimum number of astronauts that would be required to undertake a single Moonshot. After much deliberation and risk assessment at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”), the agreed number was three. To develop a three-man space capsule, from the status quo in the early 1960’s required an intermediate step of a two-man space craft. Both the Americans and the Soviets soon realized that the Moon was still physically and technically, quite far away. And to get there required more people, in space and on Earth. There was also another technical matter that needed detailed consideration – for an astronaut to step on the Moon also implicitly meant an exit of the human from the confines of the spacecraft. This was a very big step. 

Again, the race was on. 

Of Heroes and Hidden Heroines 

In my previous post, I wrote about NASA’s selection of the first American astronauts for Project Mercury, known as the "Original Seven" or “Mercury Seven”. The names of the selected astronauts had been announced in April,1959. When President John F. Kennedy announced in May,1961 the goal of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, it was quickly apparent that the size of the Astronaut Corps would have to be increased. Two large scale projects were envisaged: a two-man spacecraft project which would follow the Mercury effort and then, a three-man endeavour (to be called “Apollo”) with the lunar surface as its ultimate destination. Clearly, additional astronauts were required. 

To fill the positions, NASA put out a public advertisement. In all, 253 applications were received by the deadline of 1 June,1962. Neil Armstrong, destined to be the first man on the moon, submitted his application a week after the deadline, but the Associate Director of the Space Task Group, wanted him on the selection program so his application was not disqualified but instead, added to those already received. Even when it was received, it seems that the Director of NASA’s Flight Research Centre declined to recommend Armstrong for astronaut selection as he had concerns about his performance. Armstrong prevailed and after an extensive selection process, was one of nine named, a group to be called the “Next Nine”. 

Interestingly, amongst those who did not make the cut in that selection process were Alan Bean, Michael Collins, Richard Gordon and Jack Swigert. All would be selected in future rounds of selection and play prominent roles in the U.S. space exploration program, as astronauts. 

Although women were not prevented from applying for selection to the Astronaut Corps, the requirement for jet-based test pilot experience effectively excluded them. In fact, NASA Administrator James Webb was reported to have said at the time, "I do not think we shall be anxious to put a woman or any other person of particular race or creed into orbit just for the purpose or putting them there". 

A lack of participation by women in the American space program may have been apparent inside the space capsule but on the ground, it was a different situation. Women played critical roles, none more so than in the emerging area of computer programming. Margaret Hamilton was one such individual. She is a computer scientist and systems engineer. 

In the 1960s she was assigned to the Charles Draper Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, she developed the complex software used on various space missions, eventually leading a team credited with engineering the computer programs used on the Apollo and later, Skylab missions. 

She was not the only woman making a mission-critical contribution. America was gifted with even more heroines who made telling contributions to the ground-based activities of the Space Olympics. The recent movie, “Hidden Figures” captured their roles and the heavy responsibilities placed on some of them. Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were those who were portrayed as the protagonists in the recent movie but there were many other black American woman, who were subject to discrimination by sex and colour, yet, always gave their best for their country, providing immense technical and mathematical input in critical areas. 

Johnson was a gifted mathematician with exceptional ability in analytical geometry. Some of her work for John Glenn’s “Friendship 7” Gemini mission probably ensured that this astronaut returned safely to Earth when his spaceship encountered technical problems whilst in Earth’s orbit. In addition, she delivered similar high impact work for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions. 

A Cover honouring the work of the Katherine Johnson. There is also another interesting point about this Cover. There was only one still camera on the Moon and it was strapped to Neil Armstrong's space suit. So, there are no still photographs of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. There are only stills of Aldrin. The stamp on this Cover presents the only still photograph that  shows there were two astronauts on the lunar surface. Note the reflection of Neil Armstrong on Aldrin's visor.  

Mary Jackson also possessed exceptional mathematical ability and a degree in science. She was assigned to the team developing the heat shield and immediately made an impact, identifying a design flaw that could have resulted in a failure of that element of the spacecraft with catastrophic consequences. 

Dorothy Vaughan was another talented mathematician and “human computer“ (meaning one who followed fixed rules with no authority to deviate from these rules). She too made a mark in her area of software expertise through independent study and much against the odds. 

They were not the only ones. By the conclusion of the Apollo Project, it was estimated that there had been 400,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators, of both sexes and many races who were involved in this landmark Presidential challenge, of Olympian proportions, to land a man on the Moon. 

Second Generation Spacecraft: Gemini and Voskhod 

As the initial Vostok and Mercury programs entered their operational phases, engineers in the U.S. and Soviet Union commenced design of a second generation of manned spacecraft. The Americans began with an effort to extend the capabilities of the Mercury craft, the so-called Mark II version, and ended-up designing an essentially new two-man vehicle capable of greater manoeuvrability, rendezvous and docking capabilities. This was Project Gemini, which also aspired to build a vehicle that could endure a flight duration that would equal the period anticipated for the lunar mission to be attempted later in the decade. 

The Soviets, apparently spurred by the goals set for Project Gemini, decided to modify their Vostok spacecraft for multi-man flights. This was the Voskhod, an attempt to exploit the technical investment already made in the earlier, Vostok design which had taken Gagarin into space. 18 March 1965 – Somewhere in space (near Earth) 

On 18 March 1965, the Soviets showed that they were marginally ahead in the race to the Moon. Soviet-era cosmonaut Alexei Leonov became the first person to leave the confines of his spacecraft while in orbit and float in the vacuum of space. Leonov, who, with Pavel Belyayev, was flying onboard the former-Soviet Union's Voskhod 2, accomplished the first extra-vehicular activity (“EVA”) on what was only the fourteenth piloted spaceflight in history. 

The Americans were once again behind, but not that far behind. 

Stamps from Hungary commemorating the extra vehicular activities of Soviet cosmonaut, Leonov, and American astronaut, White, in 1965, less than a month apart from each other. Leonov was first.

On 3 June 1965, 120 miles above the Earth, Major Edward H. White II opened the hatch of the Gemini 4 spacecraft and stepped out of the capsule, becoming the first American to walk in space. He was attached to the craft with a twenty-five foot tether, and, he controlled his movements with a hand-held jet-propulsion gun. White remained outside the Gemini 4 capsule for just over 20 minutes. 

Place Your Bets 

In 1965, the thinking was that if any nation was going to get a human to the moon within a few years, then most thought it would be the Soviet Union. In my previous post (Baron Pierre De Coubertin, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev & The Space Olympics: Part 1), I wrote about Sergei Korolev. The mentor of Sergei Korolev was the pioneering Soviet rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Although Tsiolkovsky died in 1935, his work left a lasting scientific legacy, particularly in Russia. Sergei Korolev was Tsiolkovsky's pioneering experimental counterpart, who dreamed of traveling to Mars and launched, in 1933, the first Soviet liquid-fuelled rocket and the first hybrid-fuelled rocket. Sadly, in 1938, Korolev became a victim of Stalin's Great Purge and he was imprisoned in the Gulag, where he languished until 1944. 

In the aftermath of World War II, both the U.S.A.'s and the U.S.S.R.'s space programs were boosted by the addition of captured German scientists through Operations “Paperclip” and “Osoviakhim” respectively. The U.S.A. got most of the top German scientists and a slew of V-2 rockets, but the Soviet Union captured many of the German technical records, including drawings from V-2 production sites, and they also secured the services of influential scientist Helmut Grottrup. Unlike the U.S.A., the indigenous technical legacy of Tsiolkovsky gave the Soviets an initial edge which they exploited. The combination of German V-2 technology, Tsiolkovsky's theoretical work, and Korolev's brainpower and imagination ⁠proved an incredible recipe for early Soviet success in the venture of space exploration. 

The Soviets were first to every milestone in space: the first satellite, the first crewed spaceflight, the first person to orbit the Earth, the first woman in space and even, the first spacewalk. Not many are aware that on 2 January 1959, the Soviet Luna 1 mission reached the Moon but flew past it (instead of impacting it - which was the intent). This was more than ten years before the eventual American Moon landing.  Luna 1 missed its target by less than 6,000 kilometres. 

On September 14, 1959, Luna 2 succeeded: becoming the first human-made object to arrive on the Moon. Less than a month later, Luna 3 took the first photograph of the Moon's far side. In the realm of space exploration, the Soviets were achieving new milestones while the United States was forced to play catch-up. And behind every breakthrough in the Soviet space program stood Sergei Korolev. His rise, upon his release and “rehabilitation” from the Gulag, was nothing short of meteoric. The next step was to reach for the Moon, and Korolev was ready. 

With the 1964 fall of Khrushchev, Korolev was put in sole charge of the crewed space program, with the goal of a lunar landing set for October 1967 (the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution) or early 1968, seemingly within reach. Because of his crucial role in the Soviet space program, he was officially identified only as “Glavny Konstruktor” or the “Chief Designer” to protect him from possible Cold War assassination attempts by the United States. In fact, even some of the cosmonauts who worked closely with him were unaware of his last name. Such was the intensity of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union that the possibility of an assassination attempt was a real and present danger. 

Setbacks for the Soviets 

In late 1965, something happened in the Soviet Union that would have an immediate, and, long-term implications for their space program. Sergei Korolev was diagnosed with an intestinal illness. Korolev entered hospital on 5 January 1966, for what was thought to be routine intestinal surgery. Nine days later, he was dead from colon cancer complications. It was only following his death that his identity was openly revealed and he received the appropriate public recognition as the driving force behind Soviet accomplishments in space exploration. Without Korolev as their Chief Designer, things quickly went awry for the Soviets. 

The vacuum that quickly developed after his demise proved catastrophic. Vasily Mishin was chosen as Korolev's successor and disaster quickly followed. The Soviet goals of orbiting the Moon in 1967 and landing on the lunar surface in 1968 remained unchanged and Mishin was charged to get them there. A new rocket configuration, the Soyuz 1 was scheduled to be launched and Colonel Vladimir Komarov was selected to command it, with Yuri Gagarin as his backup cosmonaut. The cosmonauts knew that the spacecraft had major safety problems, but Komarov stated that if he were to refuse to fly, Gagarin would be forced to go instead. 

Komarov elected to accept to fly as a mark of respect to Gagarin but insisted, prior to the flight, that his funeral be open-casket so that the Soviet leadership could clearly see what they had done. 

On April 23, 1967, Soyuz 1 was launched: the first crewed flight since the death of Korolev. Despite 203 design faults reported by project engineers prior to lift-off, the launch still took place, immediately encountering a series of failures. First, one solar panel failed to unfold, leading to inadequate power. Then the orientation detectors malfunctioned and, the automatic stabilization system failed. Given these technical problems and some bad weather, the launch of Soyuz 2, which was planned to rendezvous with Soyuz 1, was cancelled. Komarov's technical report on the 13th orbit led to an order to abort the mission. About 5 orbits later, Soyuz 1 fired its retrorockets and re-entered Earth's atmosphere. Due to another defect, the main parachute never unfolded, and Komarov's manually deployed reserve chute became tangled. 

The space capsule descended towards Earth at high speed, estimated at between 30 and 40 meters per second, instead of the expected velocity of 1 meter per second. There was no escape. The capsule impacted Earth. The charred remains of Colonel Komarov were unrecognizable and the maiden flight under Korolev's successor had ended in the worst disaster imaginable: the first in-flight fatality of any space program. 

Stamps from the Republic of Chad, a country in Africa, honouring the two most celebrated Soviet cosmonauts, Komarov and Gagarin. Both lost their lives in the service of their nation. Komarov was the first fatality of a manned space flight.

Komarov’s charred remains were placed in an open-casket as were his wishes and this act, more than anything else severely retarded the momentum of the Soviet space program. 

On 26 April 1967, Komarov was given a state funeral in Moscow. His ashes were interred in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis at Red Square. The American astronauts requested that the Soviet government allow a representative to attend his funeral but sadly, their request was not granted. The American astronauts, however, did not forget Vladimir Komarov and the sacrifice he made for his nation.

Project Apollo 

In mid-1960, NASA was developing its long-range space exploration plan beyond Project Mercury. Amongst the ideas was for a manned circumlunar mission project - then unnamed. It is reported that Abe Silverstein, the Director of Space Flight Development, proposed the name "Apollo" because it was the name of a god in ancient Greek mythology with attractive connotations. It was also consistent with the precedence of naming manned spaceflight projects after mythological gods and heroes had been set with Mercury. Apollo was god of archery, prophecy, poetry, and music, and most significantly he was god of the sun. In his horse-drawn golden chariot, Apollo pulled the sun in its course across the sky each day. 

Stamp of Greek God - Apollo 

Project Apollo took new form when the goal of a manned lunar landing was proposed to the Congress by President John F. Kennedy on 25 May 1961 and was then subsequently approved by the Congress. It was envisaged as a program of three-man flights, leading to the landing of men on the moon. Each Apollo Moonshot had its unique set of objectives, pushing the known technical boundaries further out. In this post, I shall only cover those missions that have associated with them some interesting facts. 

Apollo 1 

Apollo 1 was initially designated AS-204. As the spacecraft AS-204, it was expected to be the first three-man crewed mission of the U.S. Apollo program to land humans on the Moon. It was expected to be launched on 21 February 1967 but the mission never flew. A cabin fire, during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy on 27 January 1967, killed all three crew members—Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White (first American to walk in space) and Pilot Roger Chaffee. The ensuing accident investigation had widespread effects. It revealed poor workmanship and found flaws in management practices. It also underscored discrepancies in the spacecraft’s overall design. 

First Day Cover honouring the astronauts lost in the Apollo 1 fire. Note the quote attributed to Gus Grissom

The review board recommended dozens of changes to be made to ensure that the spacecraft operated safer going forward. As a result of this setback, NASA was forced to become increasingly cautious right at the juncture when they needed to take the risks necessary to meet an end-of-decade lunar landing goal. 

Now it was the turn of the Americans to endure public scrutiny and the difficulties of delivering tough objectives in accelerated time frames. 

The Apollo 1 mission did not fly but the widows of the Apollo 1 crew asked that NASA retire the mission designation in honour of their lost husbands so they might keep the flight they never got to fly. NASA agreed and the name “Apollo 1”, chosen by the crew for their mission, was made official by NASA in their honour. 

Apollo 2 and 3 were also designations that were never used. Apollo 4, 5, and 6 were unmanned tests of various modules of the system and it was Apollo 7, that became the first manned Apollo mission. 

The Apollo 7 mission executed, over 10 days in October of 1968, the various tests that were set for Apollo 1 (if it had been launched February of 1967). In the end, it was Apollo 7 that was the flight that placed the Moon landing project back on track. 

The 1968 Mexico Olympics 

Whilst Apollo 7 was orbiting Earth, on the ground, across the world, there was a palpable excitement caused by the XIX Olympiad being held in Mexico City. 

The Mexico Olympics will always remain in memory for several reasons. No sports spectator, living in those times, will likely forget James Ray Hines becoming the first man to officially break the 10 second barrier in the 100 meters by winning the Olympic final with a time of 9.89 seconds appearing on the screen (later corrected to 9.95 seconds). The drama did not end there. On the morning of 16 October, African American athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meters final with a (then) world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Another African American athlete, John Carlos, won the bronze medal in the same event. On the same day, both men took their places on the podium for the medal ceremony wearing black socks without shoes and Human Rights badges. They lowered their heads and each defiantly raised a black-gloved fist as the U.S. national anthem was played in solidarity with the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. 

International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) President Avery Brundage, deemed it to be a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum of the Olympic Games. In response to their actions, Brundage ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned them from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused to comply with his wishes, Brundage threatened to ban the entire U.S. track team. This threat finally led to the expulsion of the two athletes from the Games and eventually their medals were also withdrawn. Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who came second in the 200 meters race, also wore an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge during the medal ceremony. In fact it was Norman who suggested that Carlos and Smith wear one glove each. His actions resulted in him being ostracized by Australian media and he was reprimanded by the relevant authorities of his country. He was not sent to the subsequent 1972 Games, despite making the qualifying time several times. Sadly, even when Australia hosted the 2000 Olympics, he was offered no part in the opening ceremony, though the significance of that has been debated. 

As an aside, in 2006, after Norman died of a heart attack, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral. 

As far as the determination of overall leadership in sports was concerned, the United States overwhelmingly confirmed the marginal superiority that it had showed in 1964 in Tokyo. The U.S. team won a total of 107 medals, 45 of them being gold. The Soviets, on the other hand, won 91 medals in aggregate, 29 of them being gold. 

Viewed holistically, with the success of the Apollo 7 mission, it seemed the U.S. was clearly ahead in the Space Olympics. But the year was not over and there was more excitement to come. 

Apollo 8 

The closing act for 1968 was provided by Apollo 8. This flight achieved many significant milestones. It was the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, travel 68 hours to the Moon, orbit it ten times over a twenty-hour period, and return its’ three-man astronaut crew comprising Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders back to Earth. They were the first humans to fly to the Moon, witness and photograph an “Earthrise” and, escape the gravity of a celestial body. 

Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to observe an "Earthrise". As the orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, they read verses on live television from the Book of Genesis. Some of these words are transposed on this inspiring image.

Whilst orbiting the Moon, the astronauts made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched television program ever. The Apollo 8 mission was the space flight that truly cut a path for the 1969 moon landings. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on 27 December 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the northern Pacific Ocean. 

Such was the excitement and extent of their achievement that, upon their return, the three crew members were named Time magazines’s “Men of the Year” for 1968. 

Apollo 9 and 10 

Apollo 9 was launched in early March 1969 and was the first flight of the full Apollo spacecraft configuration comprising the Command and Service Module (“CSM”) together with the Lunar Module (“LM”). The mission was flown to qualify the LM for lunar orbit operations. During the ten-day mission, the crew tested systems and procedures critical to landing on the Moon, including the LM engines, backpack life support systems, navigation systems and docking procedures. The mission concluded on 13 March and was a complete success. 

Apollo 10 quickly followed Apollo 9 and was launched in May 1969. It was planned as a "dress rehearsal" for the first Moon landing testing all the components and procedures just short of an actual landing. While astronaut John Young remained in the Command Module orbiting the Moon, astronauts Thomas Stafford and Gene Cernan flew the LM to an orbit within 15.6 km of the lunar surface, the point at which powered descent for landing would begin for an actual Moon landing. After orbiting the Moon 31 times, Apollo 10 returned safely to Earth, and its success enabled the first actual landing two months later. Not known to many, with the lunar surface so close, there was a concern that the astronauts would attempt an “unplanned” landing on the Moon! NASA thus took the unusual step of “short-fueling” the LM so that any thoughts of unplanned "Moon-stops" would quickly be banished from the minds of the astronauts as it would result in the astronauts themselves being marooned on the Moon! 

The crew of Apollo 10. NASA had concerns that this crew would attempt an unplanned landing on the lunar surface so took unprecedented steps to prevent such an event.

The Apollo 10 mission was another complete success. The stage was now prepared. The actors were in costume, had learned their lines and rehearsed faithfully. They were ready. The audience was also getting impatient, waiting to determine if President Kennedy’s challenge could be met. 

Apollo 11 

Apollo 11 was the mission that first landed humans on the Moon. It was crewed by Commander Neil Armstrong, LM Pilot, Buzz Aldrin and CSM Pilot, Michael Collins. Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket, the brainchild of Dr. Wernher von Braun, from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, on 16 July 1969. 

The crew of Apollo 11: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin.

But before leaving Earth, one matter had to be resolved. Which astronaut would take the “First Step” on the Moon? 

Early in 1969, it was reported that Buzz Aldrin would be the first to make history but at a press conference on 14 April 1969, it was announced that it would be Neil Armstrong who would take the First Step. For decades, there were many theories how this decision was made but, in his autobiography published in 2001, Chris Kraft, one of the most respected of NASA engineers and administrators, disclosed that a meeting was held between various senior decision makers during which they argued that the first person to walk on the Moon should be a “calm and quiet” person – one who exuded the seriousness and importance of the endeavour that was being attempted. Thus, they made the decision to change the flight plan and it was the Commander who was first to egress from the spacecraft. The Commander with the quiet and calm demeanour was Neil Armstrong. 

Prior to departure, it was decided the Commander Neil Armstrong would be the first to step on the lunar surface and the flight plan was written accordingly. 

The journey to the moon would take the three astronauts 3 days to complete but this was a culmination of effort made by an estimated 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians over more than a decade. The team was at the brink. The nation was on edge. 

On 20 July, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the LM, made a final check, and at 100 hours, 12 minutes into the flight, the LM, “Eagle”, undocked and separated from the CSM “Columbia”. At 101 hours, 36 minutes, when the LM was behind the Moon on its 13th orbit, the LM descent engine fired for 30 seconds to provide retrograde thrust and commence descent orbit insertion, changing to an orbit of 9 by 67 miles, replicating a flight path that had been previously been flown by Apollo 10. 

At 102 hours, 33 minutes, after Columbia and Eagle had reappeared from behind the Moon and when the LM was about 300 miles up-range, powered descent initiation was performed with the descent engine firing for 756.3 seconds. After eight minutes, the LM was at "high gate", about 26,000 feet above the lunar surface and about five miles from the landing site. The descent engine continued to provide braking thrust until about 102 hours, 45 minutes into the mission. 

Partially piloted manually by Armstrong, the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility in Site 2, at 0 degrees, 41 minutes, 15 seconds, North Latitude and 23 degrees, 26 minutes, East Longitude. This was about four miles downrange from the predicted touchdown point and occurred almost one-and-a-half minutes earlier than scheduled. It included a powered descent that ran a mere nominal 40 seconds longer than pre-flight planning as it was necessary to avoid a crater during the final phase of landing. 

On 20 July 1969 at 20:17 UTC, LM Eagle landed on the Moon. 

I was in Brickfields When Neil Armstrong Stepped on the Moon 

20.17 UTC is 4.17 AM (i.e. the next day, in this case it was 21 July 1969) in Kuala Lumpur. It was a Monday morning. At 7.30 AM the school bell at the La Salle School in Brickfields rang as it always did, and we headed to class – my class being Standard 5 Green. I had just passed my eleventh birthday on 18 July. After we greeted Mrs. Nesadurai, our teacher, lessons commenced, as they always did every school day. 

During the morning announcements over the P.A. system, Mr. L.A. informed us that an American spacecraft had landed on the Moon during the previous night. 

At about 10.00 AM that morning, Mrs. Nesadurai was replaced in class by Cikgu Malik. He was our Malay language teacher. About 25 minutes into his lesson, there was another, unexpected announcement over the PA system. Very unusually, it was the voice of our Headmaster, Mr. Ratasingam. He never made the announcements so this would have to be a very serious matter. 

“Your attention please, your attention please. Calling all classes your attention please …. You were informed early this morning that an American spacecraft landed on the moon last night. In a few minutes, an American astronaut will step on the surface on the moon. We will be allowing all of you to hear his progress as he steps onto the surface of the Moon over the school PA system. So, all teachers, you may now suspend lessons and allow the students to listen to the transmission over the PA system. Thank-you.” 

With that, the Malay Language class was suspended for the time being and we all listened to the crackly sounds, apparently coming from the Moon (through the brown speaker box fixed high up on the wall). 

At 10:40 AM precisely, brrrrrrrrrrrrnnnng went the bell for the mid-morning break, as it always did. All my classmates left the classroom. I was alone, sat at my desk. In front of me was Cikgu Malik, my Malay language teacher looking quite pleased that I had not elected to join my friends. He smiled at me and then instructed a prefect, who was standing outside our classroom, to go and collect his Thermos from the teacher’s Common Room. As time passed, the PA system transmission got even more distorted, but we strained and listened out for clues that a man was walking on the Moon. 
There was a lot of interference and suddenly we heard those words: 

“That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” 

The crackly sounds were then transposed by the voice of an excited Mr. Ratasingam:  

“There is a man walking on the Moon. I repeat, students please take note, there is a man now walking on the Moon!” 

I guess he just wanted to be sure that we all knew exactly what was happening, totally oblivious to the fact that nearly the whole school was at recess! 

A special stamp - A master die, together with the "Moon letter"  was created and launched in Apollo 11. It landed on the Moon with the LM on 20 July 1969. The letter bearing the master die was cancelled by the astronauts on their way back to Earth. In truth, they were supposed to do this on the surface of the Moon. But they forgot ! U.S. law forbids the portrayal of a living person on postage stamps. So the image was carefully described simply as "a spaceman" instead of carrying the name of "Neil Armstrong".

That night I could not sleep. I kept wondering what was happening on the Moon. At about 11 PM Malaysian time, I peered out of my bedroom window and looked up at the Moon. Just then my father walked in and asked me what I was doing, being out of bed at such a late hour. I told him that it was about the time for the astronauts to take-off from the lunar surface to commence their return journey back to Earth and I wished to see if I could spot the flame of the LM’s rockets as it thrusted upward to overcome the gravitational effects of the Moon to reunite with the CSM. 

My father thought about this for a moment, looked at me and pointed me to a building on the Kuala Lumpur skyline, that we could see from our home. At the time, there were not that many tall buildings in Kuala Lumpur, but this building, it was taller than most. It was the building of our Parliament. My father gently asked me if I thought I would be able to spot a glowing firefly exiting one of the windows of Parliament, which was not so far away. I thought about it and shook my head. He then explained that the Moon is 250,000 miles away and very likely it would be very difficult to spot the LM without a telescope. With that, he said it would be better if I went to bed right away! 

There are estimated to be 3500 stamps from various countries commemorating the Apollo 11 lunar landing. This is my favourite stamp. Note the radio - a design of the times. This stamp was issued by the Faroe Islands - a self governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did have a busy day and were indeed getting ready to take-off. They had installed scientific instruments and erected the American flag on the lunar surface. They had also collected lunar rocks and spoken to President Nixon on a “long distance” call but there was one more task left to do. Remember Vladimir Komorav, the first cosmonaut to die whilst on a human spaceflight mission, and, the Apollo 1 astronauts who died in that tragic fire in 1967: Command Pilot Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee? 

For their fallen colleagues, it was the final task of Neil Armstrong to leave commemorative medallions bearing their names, on the Moon's surface. On 24 July 1969, Apollo 11 splashed down on in the Pacific Ocean. President John F. Kennedy’s challenge had been met.


Some of the heroines of the space program had to wait a long time to receive recognition. But eventually, their time came: 

  • In 2015, at age 97, Katherine Johnson added another extraordinary achievement to her already long list: President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour and the following year, NASA dedicated the Langley Research Centre, Katherine G. Johnson Computational Building, in her honour. 
  • In 2016, Margaret Hamilton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barrack Obama for her work leading to the development of on-board flight software for NASA’s Apollo Moon Mission. 
  • In 2019, Mary Jackson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and in 2020 the Washington, D.C. headquarters of NASA was renamed the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters. 
  • In 2019, Dorothy Vaughan was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and had a crater on the far side of the Moon also named after her. 
The Apollo Missions were estimated to have costs about US$ 26 billion (US$ 150 billion in 2019 terms) 

As for the Soviets, they never gave up. 

On 21 July 1969, while the Apollo 11 astronauts were completing the first human moonwalk, Luna 15, a robotic Soviet spacecraft, in lunar orbit at the time, began its descent to the lunar surface. It had been launched three days before the Apollo 11 mission and it was the second Soviet attempt to return lunar soil back to the Earth with a goal to outstrip the U.S. in achieving a sample return back to Earth in the Space Olympics. Unfortunately for the Soviets, their Luna 15 lander crashed onto the Moon some hours before the scheduled American lift-off from the lunar surface. 

John F. Kennedy never got to see his vision of a landing a man on the Moon and safely returning him back to Earth being realized. On 22 November 1963, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. 

Some Personal Thoughts:

I should also say that a few days after the moon landing, Cikgu Malik recommended that I be appointed a school prefect. This was a position generally reserved for boys from Standard 6 (Year 6). I think it was our sharing of a special moment in history that motivated him to do on my behalf. 

It is now more than half a century since the fight of the Olympians - African American athletes Tommie Smith and  John Carlos - demonstrating public support for the Black Freedom Movement. It is more than five decades since discrimination was applied to those of colour and of the fairer sex, (and who still gave only their best for the country) in the race for the Moon. Yet today, we still need a "Black Lives Matter" movement. We know that we can go to the Moon and beyond if we make it our goal. Yet in all this time, not all of us have learnt how to respect a fellow human being, irrespective of race, creed, colour or sex . It so very silly. It is so very sad.

All stamps and First Day Covers presented in this post are part of my personal collection.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Baron Pierre De Coubertin, Dr. Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev & The Space Olympics: Part 1.

The Revival of the Ancient Olympics

Baron Pierre De Coubertin was a French Educator. When De Coubertin announced in Paris, on a winter's evening in 1892, the forthcoming re-establishment of the ancient Olympic Games, he was applauded, but nobody at the time imagined the level of competition that was going to be demonstrated by the participants and their various nations over the decades that followed.

Baron Pierre De Coubertin - Father of the Modern Olympics 

The International Olympic Committee was created on 23 June 1894 and the first Olympic Games of the modern era opened in Athens on 6 April 1896. Until today, Baron Pierre De Coubertin is considered by many to be the “Father of the Modern Olympics”. He was also founder of the International Olympic Council (“IOC”) and its second President. He is remembered by this, the most famous of all his quotes: 

“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” 

I first heard about the Olympic Games in 1968, at the age of ten years. My father gifted me with my very first, “First Day Cover”. For those who may not know exactly what a First Day Cover is, I have included my first, First Day Cover, below. In words, it is a thematically decorated envelope, issued by a Post Office of a country, with the new stamps being issued on a particular date already stuck onto the envelope (cover) and the newly issued stamps being post-marked with the “first” date of issuance of these new stamps.

My first, First Day Cover (issued at the Post Office in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur) - a gift from my father when I was 10 years old

The summer Olympics are normally held every four years but there have been exceptions. Since the opening of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the international sports competition has only been cancelled three times: once during World War I (1916) and twice during World War II (1940, 1944). This year, 2020, it has been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic but otherwise it has always been held. 

In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin. Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler seized the opportunity of the Games to promote his style of government and ideals of racial supremacy. German Jews were barred from participating and most countries chose to side-line their Jewish athletes so as not to offend their Nazi hosts. These games were made famous by Jesse Owens who won four gold medals for the United States. It was also the last Olympics to be held for twelve years due to the onset of World War II. 

A stamp from Poland honouring the many Jews who died in Auschwitz during World War II, the subject of Adolf Hitler's style of government and ideals of racial supremacy

World War II devastated the World. It took much bloodshed, suffering, death and the use of two atomic weapons over Japan before it came to an end. 

The first atomic bomb ever deployed for military purposes exploded over the city of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. A horrific number of people died that day (estimated at about 60,000 with another 60,000 to 80,000 in the months that followed from acute radiation sickness) and more were to die three days later, in Nagasaki, where a second bomb was dropped over the city.

First Day Cover: Japanese Atomic Bomb Memorial

In the carnage of the 6th of August, a Monday, a baby boy was born. His name: Yoshinori Sakai. He survived the nuclear holocaust and would play a role in the Olympics many years later. 

Once the war was over, the Olympic Games could continue but some other priorities also evolved that would give rise to a technological competition that would eventually result in that unforgettable landing of the first man onto the surface of the moon. 

It all started with “Operation Paperclip” and the “Eisenhower Doctrine”.

Operation Paperclip and the Start of the Cold War

Towards the end of World War II, London, mainly, was subject to the destructive and lethal bombardment of the German V-1 and V-2 rockets. Approximately 3000 of these rockets (the so-called “vengeance weapons” that represented a retaliatory measure for Allied bombing of German cities) were launched at the British capital city. The V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile and was also the first artificial object to travel into space when it crossed the Kármán line. The Kármán Line is a notional demarcation of space and the Earth’s atmosphere, and it is technically defined as an altitude of 100 km above the Earth’s mean sea level (the United States uses an altitude of 80 km). Whilst many people believe that the first man-made object in space was the Russian “Sputnik” spacecraft which was launched in 1957, this is factually not true. The first man-made object in space was a Nazi rocket of immense destructive and explosive power that induced terror in the hearts of the residents of the cities that were its targets. As an aside, the Sputnik spacecraft was in fact the first man-made object to orbit the Earth.

German V-1 and V-2 rockets that reigned terror on London towards the end of  World War II

The lead German scientist for the V-2 rocket program was Dr. Wernher von Braun. Brilliant, with a commanding presence, he had a single-minded desire to explore outer space. When the second World War broke out and the rockets he was forced to build successfully hit London, he was reported to have said to his colleagues, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” 

At the end of World War II, the Americans realized that they had no ballistic missile capability and hence, launched “Operation Paperclip”. This was a secret U.S. Army program created to scan Germany for its best aeronautics and atomic engineers and to offer them the opportunity to migrate to America, as a team, to further advance their work. 

Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team were the cream of the rocket research community in Germany. They were the first to breach the Kármán Line and it was this team which never stopped believing in satellites, voyages to the moon and inter-planetary travel. Operation Paperclip succeeded in relocating some of the best German scientific and engineering minds to America. 

It was not only the Americans who had such objectives. The Soviet Union was more aggressive, forcibly recruiting more than 2,200 German specialists (a total of more than 6,000 people including family members), under the code name “Operation Osoaviakhim” during the night of October 22, 1946. 

Even though both the Soviet Union and the United States had successfully collaborated militarily to defeat the Axis Powers (mainly the Germans and the Japanese), fundamental political and economic ideological differences existed between the two countries. In 1947, President Harry Truman proposed a foreign policy to the American Congress, "The Truman Doctrine", which established that the U.S. would provide military, political, diplomatic and economic assistance to all democratic nations that came under internal or external threat of authoritarian force. The key feature of his policy was that of “containment”. This was the policy of restricting the expansion of communism and in practical effect, it started the “Cold War” which was to last, on Earth, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. In space however, the Cold War ended in July 1975. During the Cold War, there was a tremendous desire by both the United States and the Soviet Union to attain positions of global influence and this drove competition in other arenas such as sports events, propaganda campaigns and technological theatres. The most prominent of the sports events was the Modern Olympics and as far as technology was concerned, the ultimate demonstration of technological superiority was (what was later termed) “the Space Race”.

 Fort Bliss, 1946

Fort Bliss is a United States Army post in the states of New Mexico and Texas. This is the location where Dr. Wernher von Braun and his team of over 100 engineers and scientists found themselves as a result of Operation Paperclip. They arrived in February 1946 and their initial years were frustrating, almost directionless. The world was at peace and there was little motivation for federal funding to be directed towards the building of ballistic missiles and rockets. In later years, von Braun would recall that it was these initial years of minimal progress that would allow the Russians to dominate the early years of the Space Race. 

In early 1950, the fortunes of the Germans changed. American Army intelligence obtained confirmation of Soviet rocket development activity and in response, immediately established a rocket research center. Huntsville, in Alabama, became the new home for the crack rocket development team. In June 1950, there was further impetus. North Korea invaded an unprepared South Korea and the Truman Doctrine was being tested. 

In Alabama, von Braun and his team were asked once again to construct a weapon of war. Over the next few years, notable milestones were achieved. By 1956, a battlefield missile had been developed which evolved into a rocket that could breach an altitude of 600 miles and travel 3,000 miles at a speed of 16,000 miles per hour. It also re-entered into the Earth’s atmosphere without damaging the dummy warhead at its nose. On conclusion of the successful, first test flight of this rocket, von Braun was heard saying: “If we had just one more small rocket on top, we could have placed a satellite in orbit around the earth.” 

The performance of this rocket made von Braun realize that if he was so close to putting a satellite into orbit, then surely the Soviets could also be extremely close to doing the same. With support from the U.S. Army, von Braun asked the Pentagon for permission to add a single stage to the top of a back-up missile (Missile 29) and to attempt to launch it into orbit. He was ready to attempt to place a satellite into orbit and to be the first to achieve this breakthrough. 

At the time, there were reports that President Dwight Eisenhower and his aides wanted the world’s first satellite to be launched into orbit by an indigenous American scientific team and not by a group headed by expatriate Germans. Others claimed that von Braun was entrusted with delivering a top priority project with military objectives and attempting to compromise this goal with a space exploration agenda would be a needless distraction. The whole truth will never be known but sadly, Dr. von Braun, was denied funding and permission to execute his plan. Missile 29 was thus mothballed in a hangar and an opportunity to launch an object into orbit, sidelined, along with it. 

Another project, called “Project Vanguard”, that covered space exploration objectives exclusively, was being run in parallel by Milton Rosen. This project was established in 1955 by the United States to send into space, a research satellite during International Geophysical Year (1957 – 1958). The results being achieved by the Vanguard project team were disappointing. In the end, out of 11 Vanguard rockets launched between 1957 and 1959, only 3 managed to deliver satellites into orbit with some spectacular disasters being telecast, live on national television.

Melbourne, 1956

In 1952, the summer Olympic Games were held in Helsinki, Finland. Originally, Helsinki was due to host the 1940 Olympics but World War II caused its cancellation. At Helsinki, the United States won the highest number of medals (40 golds and 76 medals in total) and were the best performing team, with the Soviet Union coming in second with 22 gold medals and 71 medals in total. By 1956, the leadership position of the United States in the field of sports had changed. 

Stamps issued by Australia commemorating the 1956 Melbourne Olympics 

At the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, it was the Soviet Union that came out on top with more gold medals and more medals in aggregate than the United States (USSR: 37 golds and 98 medals in total and U.S.A.: 32 golds and 74 medals in total). Slowly, but surely, the winds of sport dominance were shifting but did it stop there?

Baikonur, Central Asia, 1955

Sergei Korolev was a simple, yet brilliant rocket engineer from the Soviet Union. In 1955, he moved to Baikonur, Central Asia together with a team comprising scientists, rocket engineers, technicians and all trades necessary to construct living quarters and working facilities in this remote location. Their objective was to develop and test rocket designs. 

A stamp issued by the Republic of Gabon honouring Sergei Korolev and the milestone of placing Sputnik 1 into Earth's orbit

On 4 October 1957, late in the evening, they gathered around a giant white rocket, bathed in floodlights. Consistent with the minimalism of everything in Baikonur, the rocket was simply called the R-7. A simple name for a momentous giant that was planned for an objective that had never been previously attempted. After final checks and a simple countdown, the R-7 lifted-off. Ahead of it, the vastness of space. Behind it, a stream of flames and hot smoke. Inside it, a man-made object, called “Sputnik” (meaning “fellow traveller”). Several minutes later, the R-7 was in outer-space. Like clockwork, each step of this carefully choreographed routine played out. Within the same hour of its’ launch, Sputnik was in orbit, circling the globe every 96 minutes. 

Whilst vodka flowed in the Moscow celebrations, there were reverberations in the Pentagon. Until this event, the United States prided itself as the world’s technological leader. Now, there was a realization that the Soviets were not trailing behind anymore. Even more worryingly, the Soviets now possessed missiles that could carry dangerous nuclear payloads across continents and oceans. From the perspective of the United States, American skies had been violated, as they had been once before, at Pearl Harbour.

Sputnik 2 and Laika

Some 30 days after the launch of Sputnik 1, a second satellite, Sputnik 2, was also successfully deployed. This satellite weighed an astonishing 1,120 pounds and it soared to a maximum altitude of 1,031 miles. It did not end there. Sputnik 2 carried life, a dog named Laika, on a one-way journey into space. Laika’s air supply lasted less than a week but this was a clear signal as to what would soon follow. How long would it be before a human was placed in orbit in outer space. What would be the consequences in the United States, from a public relations perspective, if this human was a Soviet? 

Sputnik 2 carried life, a dog named Laika, on a one-way journey into space

In Washington, things were clear, there would have to be an American response.

Juno 1, Explorer 1 and the Van Allen Belts

In response to the surprise launches of Sputnik 1 and then, Sputnik 2, the United States revisited and restarted the “Explorer” program. This had been previously proposed by the U.S. Army, supported by the work on von Braun. After two Soviet satellites and a dog had already successfully orbited space coupled with the televised failure of Vanguard TV-3 launch on 6 December 1957, there was hardly any confidence left with the American public. Indeed, Americans were in dismay and a success was badly required to restore confidence. 

On 31 January 1958, approximately a year after having been mothballed and parked in an unused hangar on orders of a President, Missile 29, was reactivated. It was rebranded as Juno 1 and successfully launched carrying the “Explorer 1” satellite. This would be the first American satellite to orbit Earth. When it was confirmed that Explorer 1 was placed successfully into orbit, Dr. Wernher von Braun delivered a press conference. He could not hide his joy as he said: “It is one of the greatest moments of my life, I only regret that we did not do it sooner.” 

Whilst von Braun had concentrated on the Juno 1 rocket, the Explorer 1 satellite carried some radiation-monitoring Geiger counter equipment, provided by Dr. James A. Van Allen of the University of Iowa, as part of its 31 pound payload. This piece of equipment fulfilled the important scientific objectives of the mission, discovering that Earth is surrounded by huge bands of high-energy radiation composed of particles trapped in our planet’s magnetic field. As a result, scientists honoured Van Allen by naming these newly discovered belts after him. 

Stamp from St. Vincent & Grenadines - an island nation in the Caribbean honouring American scientist  James A. Van Allen 

Some weeks later, on March 17, 1958, Vanguard 1, became the second artificial satellite successfully placed in Earth's orbit by the United States. It was just 6.0 inches in diameter and weighed only 3.1 pounds. Such was the rhetoric that Vanguard 1 was mockingly described by then-Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev as "the grapefruit satellite" but the fact that the United States had catapulted itself into the space age did not escape him. Over the ensuing years, the competition for the dominance of the new frontier of space would be intense between the Americans and the Soviets. 

As for Dr. Wernher von Braun, his charisma won over the hearts of the American people. He was hailed as a scientist interested in the peaceful exploration of space. President Eisenhower summoned him to the White House, dined with him and conferred upon him the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award! From being a public relations risk, he was, overnight, an American hero. 

Whilst the cocktails flowed in the White House, Sergei Korolev continued to toil in the wastelands of Central Asia. He had another objective crystallizing in his brilliant mind. The wilderness and isolation of Central Asia allowed him to release his imagination as to what might be humanly possible. Unconstrained, he was able to develop his plan and the world would soon hear about it.

NASA, 1958

In the aftermath of the Sputnik successes, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act which established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”). NASA commenced operations on 1 October 1958. When it was formed, it absorbed several existing agencies including elements of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency which included significant technical contributions from the German rocket program led by Dr. Wernher von Braun and the earlier technical work of American rocket scientist Robert Goddard. 

Stamp from St. Vincent & Grenadines - an island nation in the Caribbean honouring American rocket scientist Robert Goddard

NASA’s role is to invest in the area and technologies of space exploration. One of the first critical activities undertaken by NASA was to identify humans who would be able to fly into space. Clearly, the sole objective of the period was to get a human into space and to observe the Earth in a manner never done before. By 1959, seven individuals had been selected and for the next two years they would be trained to be astronauts. They were hailed the "Mercury Seven" comprising; Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. 

Stamps from Uganda honouring the Mercury Seven Astronauts 

Many of the Mercury Seven would become household names in the subsequent years.

Baikonur, 1958 – 1959

By 1959, the Soviets were planning even further ahead. Having orbited Earth with a satellite, Sergei Korolev turned his attention to the moon, the silent sentinel of Earth for approximately 4 billion years. It fascinated him as much as it had inspired poets and scientists alike. Its apparent changing shape and colours, a result of reflected light from the Sun, its regular orbit around Earth governing the tides and the timing of religious celebrations, all made the moon a focus for his spacecraft to explore. In 1958, he launched several “moonships” but they all failed technically. The Luna 1 mission on 2 January 1959 was intended to impact the lunar surface but missed its target by about 6,000 kilometres. Nevertheless, this probe became the first to achieve escape velocity and the first to go near the Moon. In addition, it became the first man-made object to enter the Sun's orbit. 

On 14th September 1959, Luna 2, successfully impacted the moon’s surface, giving the Soviets another first. One month later, an even greater success was recorded with Luna 3. It was launched only two years after Sputnik 1, but on 7 October 1959, it became the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the Moon. This was an aspect of our Moon that the people of Earth had never-before observed. 

Whilst American astronauts trained in this newest of professions and engineers worked tirelessly to perfect the Mercury spacecraft that would fly the first American astronauts out of our world and safely bring them back again, and, whilst Korolev managed high profile projects with exotic targets such as the Moon and Mars, athletes around the world were also preparing for the Rome summer Olympics. These Games were scheduled to be held in 1960. Once again, the Cold War protagonists would meet head to head in the stadia and pools to determine the dominance of their nations in sport. The Soviets had topped the medals table in Melbourne and followed that with a “victory orbit” in space with their Sputnik 1 satellite. 

What would the Rome results foretell? What would the 1960s bring?

Rome, 1960

The 1960 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XVII Olympiad, was held from August 25 to September 11, 1960, in Rome, Italy. The city of Rome had previously been awarded the administration of the 1908 Summer Olympics but following the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1906, Rome had little option but to decline hosting the 1908 Games and instead, passed the honour to London. 

Stamps issued by the nation of Cuba commemorating the Rome Olympics of 1960 

The Rome Games of 1960 introduced to the world a then-unknown American boxer named Cassius Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali. He won boxing's light-heavyweight gold medal for his country. As far as overall performance was concerned, it was the Soviet Union which excelled. They won 43 golds and secured a total of 103 medals. The United States trailed in second place, finishing with 34 golds and an aggregate of 71 medals.

Preparing for the Main Event of the Space Olympics 

To prepare, in general, for a manned flight into space requires a great deal of scientific studies, engineering preparation and testing. On 15 May 1960, an unmanned Soviet prototype of the Vostok 1 performed 64 orbits of the Earth, but it was plagued with technical issues as it tried to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. On 28 July 1960, two dogs, named Chaika and Lishichka, were launched into space, but the mission was unsuccessful when an explosion killed the dogs. Two weeks later, another two dogs were launched into space and on 19 August, the Soviet Union became the first nation to successfully recover living creatures back on Earth after a flight into space. The dogs, Belka and Strelka were successfully launched into space on a Vostok spacecraft and they completed eighteen orbits. Following this, the Soviet Union sent a further six dogs into space, two in pairs, and two paired with a dummy. Not all missions were successful. Not all the dogs returned alive, but progress was gradually being achieved. 

Soviet military intelligence gathered information that indicated that the Americans were also closing-in on sending a human into space. In fact, on 19 January 1961, NASA announced that Alan Shepard had been selected to be that first American. It was expected that he would also be the first human in space, but Sergei Korolev had other ideas.

Fine Margins, Calculated Risks and the Soviets are in Space

On 12 April 1961, at 6:07 am UTC, a Vostok 1 spacecraft was launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome. Aboard, was pilot and cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human to travel into space. He used the radio call sign “Kedr”(translated: Siberian Pine or Cedar tree). 

Just prior to launch, Gagarin bade farewell to Sergei Korolev using the informal phrase “Poyekhali”. This later became a popular expression in the Eastern Bloc countries which was used to refer to the beginning of the Space Age. 

Vostok 1 performed as designed. In minutes, the spacecraft was in outer space. It remained in orbit for a total of 108 minutes. Sergei Korolev served as Capsule Co-ordinator and was able to speak to Gagarin who was inside the capsule. 

In the rush to beat the Americans and get the first human being into space, Soviet engineers had not yet perfected a braking system that would reduce the speed of the returning spacecraft sufficiently for a human to survive the impact of landing. Thus, they decided to eject the cosmonaut from his craft, after re-entry. Yuri Gagarin ejected at 23,000 feet and landed safely on Earth with a parachute. 

Stamps from Vietnam honouring Yuri Gagarin - first human in space 

Soviet engineers had not discussed this shortcoming with the Soviet authorities prior to the flight and their post flight reports also omitted this fact. This led everyone to believe that Gagarin had landed inside his spacecraft. It was not until four months later, when German Titov became the second Russian to orbit the Earth and the first person to spend a full day in space, that the controversy began to brew. Titov, too, owned up to ejecting out of his space capsule, prior to it crashing to the ground. 

Soviet First Day Cover commemorating the launch of Vostok - 1 on 12 April 1961 

Much to the consternation of the Americans, the result of the Rome Olympics had been repeated. The Soviets were not only first in sports they were first in space, once again, as Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. They had carved themselves another significant place in history. The margins were fine but to be first also meant embracing the risks that came with breaching the new frontiers associated with these toughest of tasks and targets. 

On 5 May 1961, barely three weeks after Gagarin had made history, Alan Shepard piloted the Mercury – Redstone 3 mission and became the second human to travel into space. But his thunder had already been stolen by the Soviets. The U.S. had been beaten again. 

As is said many times after an Olympic final: “One does not win a silver. Instead, one loses the gold.”

John F. Kennedy’s Moon Speech – 25 May 1961

Gagarin had already orbited Earth and soon, another Russian, Titov, would follow. The Soviets were clearly ahead in a type of competition in which being second did not count for much. Determination, vision and strong leadership were required for the United States to make up ground that had been lost on the front of a Cold War that was being fought. On 25 May 1961, three weeks after Shepard’s “silver medal”, President John F. Kennedy declared to the American Congress his desire for the United States, "to commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." 

Stamp from Paraguay: President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Wernher von Braun - look to the Moon - an objective set by the President, to be visited by America before the end of 1960s

The content of this seminal speech was important as it was a public commitment by the elected American leader towards a national objective and it immediately placed the Apollo moon landing program on a fast trajectory. In his speech, President Kennedy acknowledged that the Soviet Union was ahead in the Space Olympics but he set his nation a challenge. It was an inspiring speech and an uplifting moment. Most inspired and in awe was Dr. Wernher von Braun. This was his moment. This would be his time.

1962 to 1964

Whilst athletes of the world prepared for the Tokyo Olympics, Korolev was working on three projects concurrently and aggressively. His unmanned planetary missions to Mars and Venus were underway. His lunar objective was making good progress. Several rockets and spacecraft were dispatched and some of these programs have been previously covered in my post: “The Vikings were almost the first on Mars.” Suffice to say that this was a high stakes race of a scale not previously seen. In addition to all their previous successes, on 16 June 1963, the Soviet Union launched Vostok 6 which carried the first woman into space: Valentina Tereshkova .

Stamps from the Republic of Guinea honouring the first man and first woman in space 

To see which country was technically ahead was not always straightforward but the Olympics had previously provided a barometer to measure one form of success. On the horizon was the Olympics to be held in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics

The 1964 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad was held in Tokyo from 10 to 24 October 1964. Tokyo had been originally awarded the organization of the 1940 Summer Olympic Games but this honour was subsequently withdrawn and the organization of the Games passed to Helsinki because of Japan's invasion of China. Eventually the 1940 Games was cancelled because of the onset of World War II. 

The 1964 Summer Games was the first Olympics held in Asia, and the first time South Africa was barred from taking part due to its practice of apartheid in sports. Interestingly, Zambia declared its independence on the day of the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, thereby becoming the first country ever to have entered an Olympic Games as one country and having departed it as another. 

Northern Rhodesia entered the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a protectorate of the British Empire but received independence during the Games. The departed Tokyo as the Independent nation of Zambia

This was celebrated in the closing ceremony itself by the team using a board marked "Zambia" instead of the "Northern Rhodesia" placard which was used during the opening ceremony. To make the occasion meaningful, Zambia was the only team to use a placard in the closing ceremony. 

I wrote about Yoshinori Sakai earlier in this post. He was born in Hiroshima on that fateful Monday morning in August, 1945 when the world was introduced so devastatingly to the nuclear age. He survived, when many others perished. 

At the onset of the Tokyo Olympics Yoshinori Sakai ran the last few hundred metres, carrying a torch bearing a flame that had been lit in Greece some weeks earlier and had traversed the world. Using his torch, he ignited another fire in the stadium cauldron. This flame would illuminate the Tokyo night sky for the duration of the Games. Watching him, one could imagine that this was a man running away from the bombed rubble of the place where he was born, leaving behind the pain and despair of history and spiritedly carrying his message of hope - no more bombs, let's now give peace a chance. 

Yoshinori Sakai, himself, did not participate in the Olympics of 1964 but his golden moment in sport would come some years later. 

As far as winning the Games went, the Gods of Global Sport were seemingly unsure how to signal the future. The United States won 36 golds and collected 90 medals in total. The Soviets finished with 30 golds but overall, captured 96 medals. For the first time in many years, the United States was inching ahead in the sports arena. But could this performance be sustained in space? 

End of Part 1.

Part 2 to be posted around 14 July 2020.

All stamps and First Day Covers presented in this post are from my personal collection.