The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, stunned America. Engaged in the deadly Cold War with the Russian-dominated Communist colossus, the United States had up to that point dominated the Soviets in technology, military power, aviation, economics, and standard (and quality) of living. Yet now, as American attempts sputtered, the Reds launched additional satellites.
Their ability to place vehicles into outer space that could orbit the earth raised the specter of numerous scenarios, none of them good for the U.S. First, the Soviets could potentially spy more effectively on America and its interests from secure, high altitudes. Also, beating the United States into space so decisively suggested an advantage for them in nuclear weapons development. Russian cosmonaut Yugi Gagarin’s pioneering 1961 manned flight into space reinforced this fear. All of this heightened U.S. concerns that the Soviets could either dismiss the threat of American attacks in the event of a crisis, or perhaps even launch their own first strike, without the United States being able to effectively respond.
It also lit a fire under the American people.
“We very worried about Sputnik during the latter part of the 1950s,” Oklahoma historian James Caster remembers. “Massive funds and intense focus were shifted to math, science, and engineering tracks throughout the educational system. And the brilliant former German scientist Werner Von Braun and his bunch got going to help us, but they did it on slide rules, not computers.”
The nation was going to engage the Russians on yet a new stage of competition, and it was also going to prepare its young people to rise to the challenge. Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr soon stood in the forefront of the national effort. The Space Race was on as the 1960s, an unforgettable and game changing decade for the state and nation, began.
Space—War or Peace?
President John F. Kennedy clenches his fist with conviction during his famous 1962 declaration of “We choose to go the moon,” by the end of the 1960s, to an audience of 40,000 people at the Rice University football stadium.
New president John F. Kennedy, a charismatic young leader and decorated World War II naval combat commander, helmed the Herculean effort to catch, and pass, the Soviets in the Space Race. From the time of Sputnik, through the 1960s, the U.S. poured gargantuan time and capital into this task.
Shortly after Gagarin’s 1961 mission, Kennedy declared to Congress:
If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.
Then, JFK galvanized the nation with a stirring 1962 speech before 40,000 people at Rice University in Houston. It challenged the U.S.A. to accomplish the impossible—put American astronauts on the Moon before the end of the decade:
For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
So there it was. The forces of freedom, imperfect as they were, squared up to face history’s greatest barbarian empire in a Space Race that was peaceable, but possessed significant ramifications for non-peaceable enterprises. America got its own astronauts into space beginning in 1962. More of them came from unpopulous but aviation-devoted Oklahoma than any other state. Gordon Cooper of Shawnee and Thomas Stafford of Weatherford were among the greatest. Jerrie Cobb of Norman might have been had NASA not disqualified her because she was a woman.
The U.S. broke speed and mission duration lengths, rendezvoused companion spaceships, and persevered through multiple astronaut casualties. Then, on July 20, 1969, though President Kennedy did not live to see it, his audacious dream for his country and the world came true. In one of the supreme accomplishments of human history, six months before the 1960s ended, American Neil Armstrong planted Old Glory on the Moon.
Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, saluting the flag.
Now, meet a few of the many Oklahomans who played key roles in that unexcelled American feat.
Thomas P. Stafford
Weatherford native Thomas Stafford, suited up to lead the 1969 Apollo 10 mission.
Only in America could young Mary Ellen Patten arrive in a covered wagon at Weatherford, Oklahoma Territory, before statehood, and her son, Weatherford native Thomas P. Stafford, fly on four space missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Stafford’s life from one end to the other was the stuff of leadership and legend. The Weatherford High football captain finished in the top quarter of his class at the Naval Academy. He finished number one in the U.S. Air Force’s newly formed test pilot school at Edwards Air Base in California. He then taught subsequent students and wrote two of their textbooks.
Gemini 6, which carried Thomas Stafford on his first outer space mission, on permanent display at the Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, opposite a full-scale mockup of a Gemini spacecraft.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Stafford as an astronaut in 1962. Over the next thirteen years, the Oklahoman carved out one of the largest and most important spaceflight resumes in history. His first two flights, Gemini 6 in 1965 and Gemini 9A, which he commanded in 1966, pioneered the manned rendezvousing of separate vehicles in outer space. His third, 1969’s Apollo 10, which he also commanded, was a “dress rehearsal” of the fabled moon landing that occurred just two months later. It executed virtually every facet of the latter mission except for the actual landing, including a lunar module descent to within ten miles of the Moon.
The Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, OK. A Smithsonian Affiliate, it features exhibits about aviation, space exploration, and rocketry, as well as a collection of over twenty historic aircraft.
Stafford’s final mission, Apollo-Soyuz, occurred in 1975. He again commanded, this time an unnumbered Apollo spaceship. The joint project began the historic Cold War thawing process between America and the Soviet Union. When the two vehicles docked, Stafford and Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov met in the open hatch connecting the craft and shook hands. A worldwide TV audience witnessed the famous handshake.
American astronaut Thomas Stafford and Soviet Cosmonaut Aleksey A. Leonov during their historic 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project ship docking, a milestone of Cold War collaboration.
Continuing to advance up the ranks of responsibility and authority, Stafford retired from the USAF as a lieutenant general and Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisition. The Stafford Air & Space Museum (https://staffordmuseum.org) in Weatherford is named in his honor. Considered one of the finest and most comprehensive air and space museums in America, it encompasses over an acre of exhibits under one roof.
Norman native Jerrie Cobb, star of America’s early female astronaut candidates, with a Mercury spacecraft.
Had American society progressed in its recognition of female vocational prowess one generation earlier, this tall, athletic Norman native likely would have been the first woman in space. By age twelve, she had flown her father’s private plane. While an Oklahoma City Classen High School student, she earned her pilot’s license. As a commercial pilot in the 1950s, she set world speed and altitude records while flying Aero Commander aircraft built by Oklahoma’s Aero Design and Engineering Company.
In 1959, after logging more than 7,000 flying hours, NASA chose her as one of its “Mercury 13” female astronaut candidates for America’s new space program. After four years of training and preparation, the agency decided against utilizing women as astronauts. That same year, the totalitarian Soviet Union put their first female pilot, Valentina Tereshkova, into space. Tereshkova was far less experienced and qualified for such a mission than Cobb.
Clare Booth Luce’s searing Life magazine article about America’s failure to utilize Jerrie Cobb and other qualified female astronaut candidates.
No doubt aware of Cobb’s famous 1961 Reader’s Digest magazine testament of her Christian faith, and seeing a photo of her kneeling in prayer, Tereshkova famously ridiculed her Christianity. When journalists asked Cobb about this, she responded that she could never fly a high-performance aircraft without praying.
Evincing the saying that, “When God closes a door, He opens a window,” she turned her Herculean energies and faith toward missionary aviation work in South America. The National Aviation Hall of Fame described her feats upon her induction in 2012:
Typically flying solo in her Aero Commander, she pioneered new air routes across the hazardous Andes Mountains and Amazon rain forests, using self-drawn maps that guided her over uncharted territory larger than the United States. For the next 48 years Jerrie enabled the deliveries of medicine, food, seeds, clothing and other necessities to the primitive inhabitants of isolated regions, creating deep bonds of mutual understanding, admiration and friendship.
Oklahoma astronaut trainee Jerrie Cobb prepares to take off in a jet airplane.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon awarded Jerrie Cobb the Harmon Trophy as the world’s greatest female aviator. In 1981, her missionary aviation service earned her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Shawnee native Gordon Cooper on the cover of Life magazine, preparing to embark on his 1963 Faith 7 space mission.
This swashbuckling Shawnee native epitomized in real life the daredevil bravado of the classic American war hero or sports star. His father, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, had his son up in a Curtiss-Robin monoplane at age five, flying one himself at eight, and flying solo at twelve. Due to the close-knit nature of the era’s aviation community and Oklahoma’s prominence in that community, Gordon Cooper met Amelia Earhart, Wiley Post, and other great aviators while he worked at Shawnee’s Regan Airport to pay for his flying expenses.
Cooper joined the marines as teenager during World War II, then transferred to the air force in 1949. For the next decade, he gained renown as one of America’s greatest pilots. He flew F-84 and F-86 fighter bombers and test flew other Ai