A Dialogue About History: the Space Race

Student Question

What did Lambertville residents think about America’s involvement in the Space Race and not only its well-known successes like the Apollo missions but also its failures like ‘Flopnik’?

Residents’ Answers

  • Most were behind it. I remember watching the moon landing.
  • No clue.
  • I recall being excited about the space race and was cheering on the program in hopes they would overtake Russia. I also recall being saddened with its failures.

Student Response

During the Cold War, the concept of controlling the atmosphere and space travel became important to America and the Soviet Union in order to establish dominance over each other. In 1957 the USSR launched the satellite named Sputnik which became the first artificial satellite launched into space. The US quickly realized they needed to catch up to the USSR and was able to construct a test satellite they name Vanguard. When it was launched, Vanguard only flew a couple of feet into the sky before its thrusters failed and it fell and exploded on the launch pad. It was a tremendous embarrassment for America and the press nicknamed it “Flopnik” as a take on the Soviets successful Sputnik and as a way to make fun of the American government. Their failure ended up being a huge wake-up call for the country and led to the establishment of NASA which was competing with the USSR as space travel became increasingly successful although their ultimate goal was to land a man on the moon. NASA’s Project Apollo and its corresponding missions were formed with the intent of reaching the moon’s surface. Apollo 11’s triumphant landing marked not only an amazing achievement for America but for the world as well. Most people have heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words from when he landed on the surface and it is interesting how one of his companions on the voyage, Buzz Aldrin, was a New Jersey native. He was from Montclair and became a pride and joy for the community who even threw him a parade upon his arrival after the voyage. I was very surprised that there were few thoughts involving the space program from Lambertville residents. Personally, this was always my favorite topic from the time period and I know that if I lived through it, I would’ve been following the voyages and happenings of NASA. Due to the massive media attention surrounding Apollo 11, and the fear I learned that Americans had concerning the potential nuclear weapons that could’ve been launched in space I imagined Lambertville residents would’ve been more familiar with America’s space program. In my AP US history class Flopnik was mentioned quite a few times although it was never called Vanguard. Due to the media naming it Flopnik and that all of the various sources used in class never called it Vanguard I assumed that it was more likely that Lambertville residents would be more familiar with the name Flopnik. Although it is possible my textbook just made the failed satellite seem like it was a bigger deal nationwide than it really was. The first response about Apollo 11 does make sense since it was to my understanding that most of the country were tuning in to see how the launch went. Now I wonder if more people in the country had little interest in America’s space exploration and although it is idolized now, at the time it was not a major concern for Americans.