It happened today - September 14, 2015

Laika, the first dog in space On September 14, 1959, the Soviets won the race to the moon. Much good it did them.

I know, I know, Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969. But the Soviets managed to crash-land a flag there nearly a decade earlier and just two years after they shocked the world by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957.

Now arguably Sputnik itself wasn’t very impressive. But that’s how it always starts: very small. And the key thing about Sputnik in the short run was that if the Soviets could put up satellite with big rockets, those same rockets could carry hydrogen bombs up and release it far above any possible interceptor after a short boost phase, from which point they would drop unstoppably onto American cities.

The key thing about Sputnik in the long run was that it made people think the U.S.S.R. was getting ahead of the United States technologically, scientifically, educationally and in being cool. This was greeted with thunderous enthusiasm in much of the world and with panicky disbelief in the U.S. It helped elect John Kennedy in 1960 on a pledge to “get this nation moving again” as if the U.S. had been sitting on its duff since Pearl Harbor (which denied Nixon the presidency in 1960 which left him free to pursue it in 1968 which led to Watergate… but I digress).

Kennedy of course pledged to put a man on the moon within a decade which the U.S. did and then brought him back alive, something I have trouble believing the Soviets could have achieved even if they’d somehow got him there. Remember, they did put the first dog into space without any plan for getting her back, a stray they’d nabbed on the streets of Moscow with a Hey-you’re-going-to-be-famous-and-dead sort of pitch, and then managed to kill her accidentally, probably by overheating, even sooner than they’d meant to. Even the Vogons were more organized than that; when they planned to throw you out of an airlock to die, out you went on schedule.

Kennedy also promised to close the non-existent missile gap with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and, after getting elected and learning definitively that there was no missile gap, went ahead with a massive American missile deployment anyway. Not my favourite president. But I digress again.

The point is, even after spotting the Soviets a significant lead, the United States overtook them so fast they got space dust in their gaping mouths, then denied they even had a manned moon program. The U.S. eventually got bored with the moon and had Gene Cernan turn out the lights when he left. The Soviets never even got anyone there.

All they did was crash a rocket into it on their sixth try, destroying the flag it was carrying. Which is, again, exactly what you’d expect from them.

It happened todayJohn Robson