Often, clarity is merely a matter of perspective. And as Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr took to the skies on this day, 56 years ago, from a vantage point few have had the privilege of experiencing, to behold the curvature of the planet Earth as the second person in space and first American -- and years later as he gazed back onto our planet from the lunar surface as an Apollo 14 crew member, he may have had his moment of clarity.
He remarked in his memoir, Moonshot: “Realised up there that our planet is not infinite.
It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.”
Impressive words given that the space program that ferried him to the starry hinterland of space was conceived as yet another political scheme in the Cold War era.
Just another means for the US to vie for technological superiority with their Soviet rivals.
Yet up there, he must have seen past the bickering between Washington and Moscow to have uttered these words. Indeed, his sentiments are, to a large extent, shared by his astronaut peers.
Perhaps this was best captured in The Fallen Astronaut sculpture and the accompanying plaque left by Apollo 15 crew on the moon. Its design merely resembled an astronaut in a spacesuit. Unidentifiable with any gender nor ethnic race.
The companion plaque bore names of fallen American astronauts along with Soviet cosmonauts, clearly implying they were every bit comrades in the pursuit of science as they were rivals.The message was clear.
That conquest of space does not merely showcase the rise of any one nation, but more than anything, highlighted the ascent of man.
And from the onset of the space race, many terrestrial onlookers must have felt the same. While many who bested Shepard by less than a month did put politicians in the White House and their allies in a state of apprehension, the rest of the world merely had admiration for them.
Even with the frost of the Cold War hanging thickly in the air and the chilly reception given to Yuri Gagarin by UK officials, he was received warmly by unprecedented crowds at London and Manchester.
The message was clear. That conquest of space does not merely showcase the rise of any one nation but more than anything highlighted the ascent of man
So much so that an ever-eager crowd in Manchester decided to weather out pouring rain to take a glimpse of the Soviet who had been to space and back.
The political ramifications, the ideological implications, and all else be damned, they, the aforementioned ever eager crowd must have thought.
More than political squabbles
But even the policy-makers with their fervent views of national security, their wont for excessive patriotism and urge for dominance must have found something sobering in the grander view of our planet as they orchestrated the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission a decade and a half later as part of political détente amidst rising tensions between Moscow and Washington.
The Soviet leader, Leonard Brezhnev, had this to say then: “The Soviet and American spacemen will go up into outer space for the first major joint scientific experiment in the history of mankind. They know from our space, our planet looks even more beautiful.
It is big enough for us to live peacefully on it, but it is too small to be threatened by nuclear war.”
Words that resonate eerily these days now with the administration in DC giving into ultra-nationalist rhetoric and an isolationist mindset, Russia expansionist tactics, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Thus, as the world commemorates Shepard’s heroics and momentous achievement, and celebrates the ingenuity of men who put him in space, let us acknowledge the vision of unity he along with fellow astronauts have inspired.
All these troubling developments prompted Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to set the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight. It ought not tick any further.
Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza is a freelance contributor. He writes from Tehran.