Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK: Loss of the Man Who Sent Us to the Moon

President John F. Kennedy, speaking before a Joint Session of Congress on 1961 May 25, where he
states: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." (Image Source: NASA)

                        John Fitzgerald Kennedy:
           The Loss of the Man Who Sent Us to the Moon
           A Personal Remembrance From 50 Years Ago
                         By Glenn A. Walsh
                Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

At the moment of the posting of this blog post (blog post posted at 1:30 p.m. EST  / 12:30 p.m. CST in Dallas on 2013 November 22), it has been exactly fifty years since gun shots rang-out, in Dallas' Dealey Plaza, resulting in the fourth assassination of an American President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at Parkland Hospital.

The man who had set the nation's agenda to a long-range, ten-year goal, a goal of scientific achievement, to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth, was suddenly gone. Such long-range goals of nations are extremely rare, particularly during peace time. The last previous, such scientific effort had been the Manhattan Project during World War II, which had allowed the United States to successfully perfect and use an atomic bomb.

Although a new type of conflict known as the "Cold War" was certainly the impetus for the new "Space Race" to the Moon. The shock of the Russian launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik on 1957 October 4, led to a huge American reinvestment in education and basic research, particularly in what is now known as the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Then a month before President Kennedy's speech before a Joint Session of Congress on 1961 May 25 where he launched the Moon landing goal, the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in space on 1961 April 12.

After consulting with scientific experts, President Kennedy determined that a manned landing on the Moon would be a very challenging technological feat, but it was a feat that American technology and scientific expertise could achieve. With this vision of the youngest elected U.S. President, our country did succeed in landing 12 men on the Moon (including Pittsburgh native James B. Irwin) and returning them safely to the Earth. And, this was done probably earlier than it normally would have happened, had we waited until our technology, particularly computer technology, was mature enough to be more confident of a successful outcome. The computer I am using to write this blog-post is more powerful than the computers aboard the Apollo space capsules that went to the Moon.

However, despite the many problems that occurred during the Apollo missions, including the tragedy of the deaths of three astronauts during a test of Apollo 1 on 1967 January 27 and the near-tragedy of the oxygen tank explosion on Apollo 13 on 1970 April 13, America succeeded in this scientific achievement, without any wartime consequences. This is an amazing legacy for a President who served in office less than three years.

Like many baby-boomers of that era, despite my young age, I remember where I was and what I was doing the afternoon I learned of the death of the 35th President of the United States of America. I had just turned age eight, ten days earlier, and I was attending my third-grade class in the DeHaven Elementary School, in the north Pittsburgh suburb of Shaler Township.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon, probably around 2:30 p.m. EST, on Friday, 1963 November 22, our teacher was called to the school office. When she returned to the classroom, she informed the class that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. Unlike larger and more modern school buildings, DeHaven was a very old school building having opened in 1903 (the school closed in 1982 and was demolished several years ago), and hence, it had no public address system. While students at other schools around the country may have heard the news over their school's public address system, the students at DeHaven heard the news, personally, from their teacher. DeHaven classes were dismissed about a half-hour early that afternoon.

I, quickly, walked the quarter-mile home to tell my parents what I had learned at school. In addition to my mother (Eleanor) being at home that afternoon with my two young sisters (Gayle and Lynne) as usual, my father (William) had stayed-home sick that day. My father was a research chemist at the Gulf Oil Corporation's Gulf Research subsidiary research labs in the northeast Pittsburgh suburb of Harmarville (these research labs are now owned by the University of Pittsburgh).

When I arrived home, I found out that my parents had already heard the news shortly before I reached the house, a little after 3:30 p.m. EST. As usual, my mother had turned-on our large, vacuum-tube, black-and-white television set a few minutes early to warm-it-up, to watch the CBS-TV soap opera, The Edge of Night, on KDKA-TV 2 at 3:30 p.m. EST. At first, when she saw the news was being broadcast, she did not think much of it. In that era, CBS-TV broadcast a five-minute news update program with anchor Douglas Edwards, each weekday at 3:25 p.m. EST. When the news program continued past 3:30 p.m. EST (the continuing news coverage of the assassination, preempting the soap opera), she knew something was wrong and soon learned what had happened.

As I walked in my home's front door, my father was talking on our telephone, which was located adjacent to the kitchen in our small dining room. I remember him saying (probably to a friend or work colleague) that it was just "stupid" to assassinate the President of the United States.

Later in the weekend, while my family watched the continuing television news coverage, I remember my father (a great student of history, who had almost decided to become a history professor) telling me that I was watching "history in-the-making."

The Shaler Township School District cancelled classes on Monday (1963 November 25), the day of the televised state funeral for President Kennedy, as did many other school districts. However, the school vacation during the holidays was shortened by one day, to make-up for the cancellation of classes on that Monday.

I watched, with great interest, what has been described as the first "wall-to-wall" television coverage of a major national news event, the continuing coverage all weekend-long of the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy. As a child, I was just beginning to become interested in science, history, public and governmental affairs, and current events. My father, who was also very interested in these subjects, encouraged me. When we traveled, we would visit state capitols, historic attractions such as Fort McHenry and Fort Ticonderoga, as well as scientific sites such as the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Kennedy (now returned to its original name, Cape Canaveral).

As the Space Program proceeded into Project Gemini, I started a scapbook of news articles from the many space missions. Although activities clubs were rare in elementary schools in that era, when some sixth-graders at DeHaven School decided to start an Astronomy Club, I eagerly joined while in fifth-grade. Also, while in DeHaven School I entered the school science fair with a clay model of the ancient Stonehenge astronomical observatory. Although at first I did not win a prize, the teachers judging the competition changed their minds and decided to award me an Honorable Mention for the project.

Starting on my tenth birthday (1965 November 12) I made my first of many visits (particularly during junior high school) to Pittsburgh's original Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. Years later, I would go on to become Astronomical Observatory Coordinator and a Planetarium Lecturer at the original Buhl Planetarium, as well as Curator of a fairly unique embryology exhibit where chicks (and occasionally ducklings) were hatched before visitors' eyes every weekend.

It was the NASA Space Program of the 1960s which sparked my interest in Space and Astronomy. And, the father of that Space Program was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His untimely death is a tragedy to American history, as well as to the American Space Program.

More on the decision to go to the Moon:
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More on John Fitzgerald Kennedy:
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More on the assassination of President Kennedy:
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Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.

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