In December of 1968, America won the moon race.
NASA didn’t actually accomplish JFK’s goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth until eight months later with the historic Apollo 11 mission, but on that fateful Christmas Eve, when the Apollo 8 astronauts read from Genesis to an awestruck planet, as they circled our nearest neighbor, the Soviets knew that they weren’t going to win, and they not only quit, but also pretended they’d never been racing.
It was a very risky flight, the first one to send an Apollo capsule beyond earth orbit, and the first manned flight of the Saturn V rocket, after an almost-disastrous first flight in which the vehicle had several premature engine shutdowns and almost shook itself to pieces. There was no second unmanned test flight to see if it had been fixed.
Does anyone imagine that NASA could do that flight today? Not just because they don’t have the hardware to do it. Even if they did, the agency, indeed the nation itself, no longer has the courage to do bold things in space. The actual moon landings and the Apollo moon program were ended sooner than originally planned, after only six successful flights, not just because their monetary cost was so great, but also because losing astronauts was viewed as almost inevitable if they continued (it almost happened on Apollo 13). Also, the race with the Soviets — the driving purpose of the program — was over. Though the Cold War continued for another couple decades, we had won that particular battle in it, and space was no longer considered important enough to risk human life on it.
As an example, fast forward to this past fall, when two successive failures of the Russian launch system on which NASA is now dependent to get the astronauts to the International Space Station since last summer’s retirement of the Space Shuttle had the agency contemplating abandoning the ISS, in which the nation has invested almost three decades and around a hundred billion dollars.
Why? Despite the fact that such an act would put at risk that national investment, they were concerned about the lives or health of an astronaut crew.
Think about that.