Category Archives: Space Race

1000 Words: Persistence

A quick shout-out before I get into today’s topic. This is related to my last post about recovering from total hip replacement surgery this month. When I was a kid (meaning any time before a couple of years ago), I thought I knew what love was. I didn’t. I have a better handle on it now.

Every day — sometimes two and three times a day — The Loved One has to put my socks and shoes on for me. I’ll be under doctor’s restrictions against that usually mundane task for the next few weeks, at least.

My conclusion? True love is not gushing romance and bliss and batting eyelashes and pounding heartbeats. No, it’s a spouse or mate or significant other hunkering down, despite having her own back issues, to roll up my socks, gingerly roll them on to my exacting tightness specifications, and then lace up and double-knot my sneakers even, sometimes, when she’s fresh out of bed.

That kind of love is not as exciting or arousing as the kind I desperately sought in my 20s, but it’s indescribably deeper and profoundly more satisfying than any other kind I’ve ever experienced. I can only hope to do the same or something similar for her one day.


Now then, persistence. Loyal Pencillistas know I’m a space geek. I have been since I was five years old and Alan Shepard became the first American to sit in a space capsule and be launched 101.2 nautical miles above the Earth’s surface. He was the first American in space, even though Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat him to those rarified heights some three and a half weeks previously. Poor Shepard longed to be the first human in space but his Mercury mission had been postponed a half dozen times after its originally scheduled date in 1960. Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission lifted off on April 12, 1961. He orbited the Earth three times. Shepard’s Freedom 7 spacecraft launched on May 5, 1961. He did not orbit the Earth but flew in a ballistic arc over the Atlantic Ocean.

Another sad turn for Shepard: He climbed into his Freedom 7 capsule at 5:20am that fateful Friday. It was expected liftoff would occur within a couple of hours. Due to miscellaneous delays, Shepard remained strapped in to his capsule for more than four hours. He needed to pee. Eventually, he couldn’t hold it any longer and ground control told him to pee in his spacesuit. In those early space flight days, no provisions had yet been made for crew members to relieve themselves. So Alan Shepard sat in his own urine until he was picked up by rescue helicopter after splashing down at ten minutes to 2:00pm.


Another bit of trivia: When reporters asked Shepard what he thought about during his sub-orbital flight, he replied, “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”

Anyway, persistence. The space race was driven, largely, by its two participants’ — the USA and the USSR — common desire to show the world who had the bigger dick. For years, the Soviet’s junk loomed huge over America’s paltry prong. The USA told the world on July 30, 1955 it would send an artificial satellite into space in 1957. The Soviets followed suit four days later. Partially to its credit, the USA would be far more cautious about sending machines and people into space than the Soviets were. That and President Dwight Eisenhower’s un-interest in space exploration allowed the USSR to leapfrog the USA therein. The Soviets would launch Sputnik 1 on October 1, 1957. The USA didn’t send a satellite into space until four months later when it launched Pioneer 1.

Sputnik was a hollow ball containing a simple radio transmitter emitting a continuous string of beeps as it orbited the Earth. Anyone with a rudimentary receiver could hear Sputnik’s beeps as it passed overhead so the American populace suffered a collective paranoia. Despite a panicky renewed emphasis on scientific education and the creation of NASA, the Soviets continued to beat the USA to the punch in space even after Gagarin’s ride. The USSR sent the first woman and the first multi-person crew into space. A cosmonaut also was the first human to “walk” in space.

Of course, the USA eventually trumped the Soviets when Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon on July 21, 1969. President John F. Kennedy had pledged on May 25, 1961 that America would land a person on the Moon before the decade was out. At that particular moment no one on Earth had any idea how to get a crewed capsule to the Moon and back safely. It’d be like President Biden today promising battery-powered flying cars would replace gas-engine automobiles by the year 2032.

The First Human Footprint on the Moon.

Just getting anything from the Earth to the Moon and back in the late ’50s and early ’60s was a nearly impossible task. It took the USA three tries to get a spacecraft to simply fly by the moon before Pioneer 4 did it in 1959. The USSR’s Luna 2 crashed into the Moon nine months later. Neither country was able to manage a soft landing on the Moon — by an un-crewed craft, of course — until the Soviets’ Luna 9 touched down on February 3, 1966. Between the two countries, there’d been at least 37 previous attempts to either fly by, crash into, or soft land on the Moon before Luna 9’s successful mission. The two countries started launching rockets toward the Moon in the summer of 1958 and couldn’t land a machine on its surface until fully eight years later.

Imagine that kind of sustained failure taking place over nearly a decade in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. A single failure these days generates hoots and insults. We demand immediate success and gratification. If something doesn’t work the first time it’s attempted, we pillory its imagineers, its creators, and its operators. For good measure we blame whomever’s in the White House at the time.

Persistence? It apparently no longer exists.

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