This six part serial set at the height of the Cold War tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between politics and technology. United States triumphalism that they had won the war, although unofficial acknowledgement some fading nations and bankrupt colonial powers such as Britain might have helped, were undermined when the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957.
‘Kaputnik’ was one American newspaper headline. By 12th April 1961 the USSR was a man and a dog ahead. I can’t remember the name of the dog, but Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet pilot, cosmonaut, and national hero. As well as being a test pilot he was small, which meant he could fit inside the capsule. He’d be on the front page of every newspaper in the world and he was discovered to be photogenic, which helped. What makes this documentary watchable is we also get the Soviet perspective. Sergei Khrushchev, whose father Nikita, led the Soviet Union during this era, gives us some insider information on what was the right stuff from over there.
Newly elected President John F Kennedy was looking for that big idea that would win the ongoing propaganda war against Communism, in general, and the USSR in particular and reasserts the dominance of Capitalism and its superior technology that had produced the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Lyndon B Johnstone then a senator had bemoaned the fact that the Soviet had taken four years to produce an atomic bomb of their own and a mere nine months to produce a hydrogen bomb. He made no mention of the helping hand of Soviet spies stealing their blueprints. Now with Sputniks in the skies, one commentator remembered drills and practicing hiding under school desks. Soviet satellite technology was aligned with the threat of nuclear capability to create a moral and existential panic.
Congress approved an initial budget of $1.7 billion, or $10 for every man, woman or child in America, on the understanding that the flag flying on the moon wouldn’t be the hammer and sickle but the stars and stripes.
NASA were reliant of an team of German scientist and former Nazis, led by Werner von Braun who developed the V1 rocket that bombed London. The Saturn rocket that successfully launched astronaut on 20th February 1962, a marine colonel named John Glenn and orbited the Earth was a bigger, souped-up version of the V1. Rocket flight hasn’t changed that much. Essentially it’s a pencil nib on top of a three or four storey casing of highly explosive fuel. The trick was to keep the astronaut, and later astronauts that went to the moon alive, and bring them back. Even with national prestige at stake, with budget overruns JFK was considering scaling back NASA’s budget and America’s ambition. He even proposed a joint mission to the moon with the USSR.
As we know this didn’t happen in his lifetime. And a new word entered our consciousness, software. Programmers such as Margaret Hamilton designed the on-board computer system that allowed the Neil Armstrong to utter those immortal words, ‘The Eagle had landed’. A computer system and memory so basic it wouldn’t power a modern calculator.
‘Whitey on the moon’ was Gil-Scott Heron’s take on it. Captain Edward J Dwight test pilot and a black kid didn’t make the grade. No accident. No malfunction. Not much has changed in fifty years. The moron’s moron and friend of the KKK in the White House is keen on picking up Ronald Reagan’s hyperbole and aborted Star Wars programme. The military industrial complex that swallows sixty-percent of the US budget, but can’t find a nickel or cent for welfare, for the poor. Different planet now, same rules apply.