This space competition between the United States and the USSR that led to the conquest of the Moon


After the successful recovery of animals sent into space, all attention is now focused on one goal: man. In the United States, the Mercury program is the subject of rampant propaganda. One wonders who to embark: a pardoned pardoned man, a circus acrobat, an aerial fielder? We finally fall back on the fighter pilot, whose discipline is foolproof. Philip Kaufman's The Cloth of Heroes is a very realistic document on the issues of selection. NASA plans to launch an inhabited capsule by the end of April 1961.

The Russian program, it is much more discreet but follows the same path by selecting the profile of the ideal candidate: a good soldier first and foremost. It is true that the chances of success of the launch are at that time only 50%. After a fierce selection, the fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin, along with his colleague Guerman Titov, is part of the last two candidates for the first human orbital flight in history. The commission decides in favor of Gagarin, whose more modest origins symbolize the "ideal of Soviet equality". Disappointed, Titov does not flinch, but he does not congratulate Gagarin as it would be of use. On April 12 at 8:40 am, the Tass news agency announces that a man has boarded Vostok 1, a 4.5-tonne spacecraft. Gagarin completed a complete revolution around the Earth during one hundred and eight minutes, in low orbit, reaching 327 kilometers of altitude, and was recovered alive on the territory of the USSR. The great history of space exploration now has its Christopher Columbus.

In the world, it's stupor. After the snub of Sputnik 1, the USSR again beat the Americans. In a hurry, the latter dispatch May 5 Alan Shepard 180 km above sea level, but in a small ballistic leap of barely fifteen minutes. The Russians hit harder in August. Gagarin only stayed in space during an orbit. The second flight of Vostok, it will last twenty-five hours, or 17 orbits. Titov retains his revenge, but the mission does not take place without some twists and turns. After a few turns of Earth, the cosmonaut feels for the first time the evil of space. He still manages to film for ten minutes the curved horizon of our planet. A big first again. His condition improved, he closed the last orbit, ejected the descent module and returned to the ground parachute and in perfect health. He is 25 years old. Titov remains to this day the youngest human being to have gone into space.

It was only six months later, on February 20, 1962, that an American embarked on a small Mercury capsule made three Earth turns in orbit and was recovered at sea. Major John Glenn was celebrated as a national hero with the same impetus as Gagarin in Russia. Difference in size however: while Gagarin will continue his career as a fighter pilot to kill himself at the age of 34 during the crash of his Mig 15, John Glenn will begin a political career and will end up senator.

Stung by the Soviets, who have taken several steps ahead in the conquest of space, the Americans say to themselves, to surpass the exploits of their political enemy, they only have the Moon. Wernher von Braun, who became NASA's director, says, "to stay on track, the United States will have to run like hell." On May 25, 1962, the young American president John Fitzgerald Kennedy pronounced in Houston his famous speech "We choose to go on the Moon", starting the program Apollo. He reiterates and broadens the idea expressed a year earlier in his speech to Congress: "Our nation must commit to land the man on the moon and bring him back to earth safe and sound before the end of the decade. . "

This text is extracted from Chronicles of space, by Jean-Pierre Luminet, published by Éditions du Cherche-Midi.

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