Happy Friday

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Good morning. It’s Friday, September 14, 2018. On this date in 1959, at a few minutes after midnight Moscow time, a rocket named Luna 2 crash-landed on the moon. Why do we care what time it was in Russia? Here’s why: Luna 2 was created in the Soviet Union and launched from the massive Baikonur Cosmodrome space facility on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

That’s right. Russian, not American, scientists were the first to send a man-made craft to the moon.

Remembered today mainly by space geeks, the events of September 12-14, 1959 gave the Soviets a leg up in the race to the heavens. Luna 2 sent important scientific information back to Baikonur, including confirmation that Earth’s moon was not protected by radiation belts or a magnetic field.

Luna 2 gave the Russians bragging rights as well. The first man-made object had reached the moon — and they had sent it there. Soviet engineers were proud of their technological feat, which had been achieved within 83 seconds of the predicted landing time, and the Kremlin was quick to realize the propaganda possibilities. Days later, on a previously scheduled visit to the United States, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev presented President Dwight Eisenhower with a copy of the pendant deposited on the moon by Luna 2.

The body language between the two men — and Vice President Richard Nixon as well — was intriguing. In a photo, all three are smiling, but it’s not exactly the same expression. Khrushchev is beaming, as one might expect, seemingly delighted both by his nation’s achievement and by the passive-aggressive little gesture he’s just put over on Ike. For his part, Eisenhower seems to genuinely appreciate the elaborate doohickey. He examines it as if contemplating the scientific possibilities he’s cradling in his hand. Nixon is smiling, too, but tightly. He looks, at least to me, like he wants to whack Khrushchev in the head with it.

The vice president’s initial reaction inside the White House was to ask if the Soviets had faked their lunar landing. His public response was to warn the Russians that the presence of the Soviet flag on the moon did not give the Russians territorial rights there, and to insist, against all evidence, that the United States was still “way ahead” in the space race.

But history is more than a series of snapshots. It’s a flowing stream, and in the fullness of time — actually the very next week — Khrushchev would reveal his own limitations, and that of the system that produced him, by throwing a public snit over being denied a visit to Disneyland. John F. Kennedy would defeat Richard Nixon in 1960 and soon commit his country to landing human beings on the moon, and bringing them back safely.

Kennedy’s goal was realized, and on his timetable, too. In this millennium, however, Russians and Americans hang out in space together and a Hollywood movie about the moon landing celebrates the event as “a human achievement” of international significance — and not a national milestone for the United States of America. Richard Nixon isn’t the only American who would disagree.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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