Two weeks ago Friday I found myself at Logan Airport’s Terminal C at 8:30 at night awaiting the arrival of a family member in bound for a Christmas visit. Despite having had two earlier flights cancelled by the mammoth storm that had engulfed much of the country that day and with current winds gusting to 50 mph, their flight landed on time and we were soon on the road to Lowell.
With that experience and all the news of the meltdown of Southwest Airline’s entire flight schedule in the week after Christmas, aviation has been on my mind lately. Perhaps that’s why I noticed an otherwise fleeting online observation that the time between the first flight by the Wright Brothers and the first moon landing fit within a single lifetime. Could that be true? It seemed a startling fact so I did the math.
The first flight by the Wright Brothers occurred on December 17, 1903. The first human to step foot on the moon did so on July 20, 1969. That’s a gap of 65 years and 7 months, easily within a lifetime. My grandparents were all born between 1898 and 1902, and three of them made it to their 80s, so their lives bracketed this first-flight-to-moon-landing span.
Now, nearly 54 years have passed since the moon landing. Has the pace and scale of achievement post moon landing been comparable to what came before? It’s hard to say since at some point America pivoted away from space exploration to other priorities and only recently has revived talk of returning humans to the stars.
Being just 10 years old when the moon landing occurred, I was still a bit young to fully comprehend the importance of the space race. Those a few years older than me saw it as a part of our existential struggle against Communism. There’s a nice depiction of that at the start of the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Three Black women are stranded in rural Virginia by their broken down car when a white police officer pulls up. Initially surly towards the three, his attitude pivots to enormously helpful when he learns they work at NASA’s Langley, Virginia, complex. Not only does the officer get their car started, he also provides them a high speed escort to work complete with a blaring siren. Anything to beat the Soviets!
That and other cultural indicators make me regret not paying closer attention to space-related news when I was growing up. But it’s never too late, especially when it comes to history. It also seems apparent that the space race, the Cold War, and Vietnam are closely intertwined and that you can’t understand one without knowing about the others. And as is so often the case with big historical issues, there are likely connections back to Lowell that are worth exploring.
In the coming months I hope to write more about some of these topics. If any readers would like to contribute to this effort, guest posts are always welcome. If you’re interested, just reach out to DickHoweJr[at]gmail.com.