TO INFINITY, AND BEYOND! Today's successful landing of the space shuttle reminded me of something I've been wanting to point out. If you're like most people, your memory of the great space race goes something like this:

1957: Soviets launch Sputnik. Americans get serious about education.

1961: JFK takes office, pledges to put a man on the moon in ten years.

1969: Neil Armstrong steps on the moon. Hooray! We win!

The only trouble is, that wasn't the whole story. In fact, for all the extraordinary achievement of our space program, except for the Big Enchilada of getting a man to the moon first, the Soviets pretty much kicked our asses at every other step along the way. Not only did they get the first satellite up, they had the first living being in space (Laika the dog, who sadly did not return to gambol in the Siberian snow), the first man in space, the first woman in space, the first person to orbit the earth, the first man-made object to orbit the sun, the first man-made object on the moon, the first object to "soft-land" (i.e. not crash) onto the moon, the first spacewalk, and the first object to orbit the moon and return to earth. (Here's a timeline of all this if you're interested.)

I don't know about you, but when I found all this out I was pretty surprised, since in my youth I didn't hear about any of it, with the exception of Yuri Gagarin being the first person in space. The story was one of unmitigated American triumph. For some reason, the one I found most challenged my view of it all is the fact that when the Apollo astronauts got to the moon, there was a Soviet spacecraft sitting there.

Again, I don't mean in any way to diminish the amazing things our scientists and astronauts accomplished. But it just goes to show, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear.

--Paul Waldman

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