Chasing The Moon: American Experience - episode: 3103H - Chasing The Moon: American Experience |

Part One - A Place Beyond the Sky

"A Place Beyond the Sky" begins in 1957 and tracks the early years of the space race as the United States struggled to catch up with the Soviet Union. The episode explores both the successes and failures of America’s early space program, and the enormous stakes involved in the quest to reach the moon.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik, which, in the midst of Cold War tensions, signaled a dramatic technological advantage. If the Soviets could launch a satellite into space, surely they could send a nuclear weapon into the heart of the U.S.; there was little choice but to join the space race.

To rival the Soviets, President Eisenhower turned to rocket manufacturer and former Nazi S.S. Colonel, Wernher von Braun. During the war, von Braun had been responsible for the design of the V2 rocket, a weapon that heralded a new age in rocket science. Despite his past, von Braun had successfully reinvented himself in the U.S. as a charismatic visionary in the field of human space exploration.

Under von Braun’s leadership, the U.S. finally seemed to be making headway. On May 5, 1961, a Redstone rocket successfully launched Navy test pilot Alan Shepard 116 vertical miles up into space. With this victory, newly elected President Kennedy could now legitimately claim that the nation could vie with the Soviets for the mastery of this new frontier. 

The American space program grew rapidly. Cocoa Beach, NASA’s missile and space launch site, was christened Cape Canaveral, and became the bustling center of this exciting new world. Less than a year after Kennedy urged the nation to aim for the moon, NASA secured another victory when John Glenn successfully orbited the earth.

Back in Washington, Kennedy was having second thoughts about the enormous cost of the space program. In a tense summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna a year earlier, Kennedy had secretly broached the possibility of a joint mission to the moon. Khrushchev demurred, fearing that a collaborative effort in space might divulge the truth: despite claims, the USSR in fact had no greater arsenal. With his proposal of collaboration rebuffed, Kennedy refocused on his space program, touring NASA facilities in Houston and delivering passionate speeches that urged the nation to meet the great challenges of chasing the moon. But on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated, and Cape Canaveral was quickly re-named Cape Kennedy in his honor.

1 hour 56 minutes
Closed Caption: 
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