Quest for space race information offers more questions than answers

By Nicole Vandiford

Throughout human history, men have wanted to conquer, and conquer they have.

During World War II, the United States was desperate to find ways to improve their weapons, and while they were allies with the Soviet Union, tensions ran high between the two countries.

Flight had been conquered for the most part by this time, but there was one thing that man had not yet conquered – space.

Nazi Germans of the Third Reich were doing secret experiments on travel between time and space, which seems like something out of an H.G. Wells novel. However, this experimentation worried the Allies because it was something they knew nothing about.

By the 1950s, the United States was in a race with their former ally, the Soviet Union, to conquer the closest thing they could – the moon.

Timeline of the Space Race

The space race began in 1957 and ended in 1969 shortly after the Apollo 11 mission, which put a man on the moon in June 1969. The United States and the Soviet Union participated in the space race.

The space race launched after rough waters between the two countries brought on the Cold War. The Cold War was one of the key reasons the space race was so competitive.

The space race officially began in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik by the USSR. In November 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 2 with a passenger – a dog named Laika that stayed in orbit but died within a few hours from overheating.

In January 1958, the Unites States launched its first successful satellite into orbit – Explorer 1, which helped scientists discover the Van Allen radiation belt.

In 1958, President Eisenhower created NASA.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States, and he was an advocate for the country to put man on the moon before the Soviet Union did.

In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth and became the first person in space, a massive win for the Soviet Union.

A month later in May 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space.

In September 1962, President Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University on the importance of the moon program:

“We choose to go to the Moon.”

In June 1963, Valentia Tereshkova became the first woman in space thanks to the Soviet Union.

In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated before getting to see the moon program launch.

In June 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edward “Buzz” Aldrin became the first people to step foot on the moon, making the United States the victors of the space race.

In the arms of the frontier

In order to understand the space race, it is important to know why it started, and that begins with the Cold War.

The United States and the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, were allies in World War II against the Third Reich, but it was never a close friendship.

Once WWII ended, the United States and the Soviet Union became rivals with conflicting political views, and thus the Cold War was born from the ashes of WWII.

Before the space race gained momentum, there was another race that the between the United states and the Soviet Union – the “arms race.” During WWII, the United States hired Nazi Germans to help with the Manhattan Project, which led to the first production of nuclear weapons.

Bringing Germans to the United States during WWII was controversial since the American people were already worried that Nazis were infiltrating their country. But in “Operation Paperclip,” that is just what the United States government did. They hired Nazi Germans to travel to the United States to work on nuclear weapons for the U.S. government.

According to CIA documents, some of the most notorious Nazis to work under Operation Paperclip were Dr. Hubertus Strughold, who helped develop space suits, General Reinhard Gehlen, who was the former head of Nazi intelligence operations and Dr. Kurt Blome, a German biologist who was hired to defend against biological warfare.

The United States began testing atomic bombs only months prior to the bombings in Japan. In July 1945, at Alamogordo U.S. Army Air Force Base, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb. Codename: Trinity.

At the end of WWII, the atomic bomb became widely known because of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The space race was inevitable after the arms race. During WWII, Nazis in the Third Reich were actively doing research on space travel. Because of this, most of the researchers in the atomic and hydrogen bomb testing were Nazi Germans that the United States hired after the war.

In 1952, the United States successfully made the first hydrogen bomb, or H-bomb, which was well-known for the mushroom-like cloud the explosion creates. Codename: Ivy Mike.

Morehead Planetarium astronaut training

One would think that trying to find information that involves a planetarium and government funding would be easy, but that does not seem to be true.

Morehead Planetarium is on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s campus, and because of this, the university archives are the quickest and easiest place to find information on the astronaut trainings that took place there.

In order to gain access to documents in the special archives, you have to register, provide general information such as address and contact information, and you have to have your picture taken. I met with one of Wilson Library’s staff, Bob. He had a gentle demeanor that was inviting, and he was more than willing to help me on the topic.

“Not many people come in for this topic,” Bob said. “It seems to be difficult to find information in the archives.”

We spent some time looking into the digital archives because Bob thought it would be the quickest way of figuring out what information is available.

We put in basic keywords: “astronauts,” “space race,” “morehead,” “planetarium,” “training,” and more. I was not prepared for how difficult it was going to be to find information on the topic until we had three search results that all said there was no information.

In order to find documents that you have to touch with fancy white gloves, you have to get special permission from Wilson Library, and that takes time to process.

Since I couldn’t find much in the archives other than some pictures of the astronauts who were involved, I decided I should go straight to the source: Morehead Planetarium.

When I entered the planetarium’s business center, the atmosphere was different than I expected for the planetarium. There was a girl at the front desk who asked if I needed help, so I took a leap of faith.

“I’m working on a written piece and was wondering if there is anyone I could talk to about the space race,” I said with the soft speech I use to help me get information that I need.

“Have you talked to Micky Jo?” the girl said.

The infamous “Micky Jo.” I have been told this name so many times while working on this piece that she seems to be a legend in my eyes.

Micky Jo Sorrell is an educator at the planetarium, and she would be a perfect person to gather information on the space race from. However, the day was not in my favor.

“I have been told to talk to her, is she available?” I asked.

“One second,” she said.

At this point, another girl walked into the room. The girl at the front desk asked if she had seen Micky Jo.

At this point, I’m sitting in a fancy leather chair watching two planetarium employees asking around for me.

A man came out from one of the back offices.

“Have you seen Micky Jo?” both the girls asked him.

“She’s in a meeting,” he said.

“Oh, when will she be out?” I asked.

“Not for a while,” he responded. “What do you need?”

I told him my shtick.

“Out of all the people in here, I probably know the most about the space race,” he said.

“Well could I get some information from you?” I asked, probably more exuberantly than I should have.

“I’m busy at the moment, but here’s my card.”

He handed me a business card with his name on it – Richard McColman, the Fulldome Theater director.

“Thank you, I’ll get in touch,” I said while leaving.

I emailed him later that night. I waited for what seemed like forever to only get an email saying he would not be able to give me the answers I needed without an appointment. I didn’t have time to make an appointment.

We both apologized to each other for the inconvenience, but I was determined to find something.

I looked into the planetarium’s website to see what they had for the public. The website actually gave me some helpful information.

Over 60 astronauts trained at Morehead Planetarium during the space race, including Neil Armstrong.

Many credit the training done at the planetarium for the astronauts saving lives during risky missions, including Apollo 13, which was the inspiration for the film with the same name.

The space race’s lasting impact

It feels like I am ending right where I started, with little available information on the space race, but that brings up an interesting question. Why?

In the 1950s, space travel was seen as the next chapter in American history, yet today, not many people even know the basic information.

“Other than the money aspect, we reached the pinnacle of what we learn from just putting humans in space with the current technology,” said Taylor Peele, a U.S. Army soldier. “We did what we set to do, which was beat the rest of the world to setting foot on extraterrestrial soil.”

Perhaps that is the answer. We came, we conquered, we leave. What was set out to happen has happened, so there is no dire need to talk about it anymore.

The effects of the space race are still alive in pop culture, primarily in movies such as Interstellar, Gravity and the Star Wars saga.

They would not have been made without what we have learned from the space race.


edited by Elise Clouser