On this day (September 6) in 1969, David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” hit the U.K. music charts. Although the song debuted only six weeks after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, it didn’t make the U.S. charts until its re-release in 1973.
Reactions, artistic and otherwise, to a half-century of space exploration can be found in some of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library. Like many Americans, Franklin, Kentucky native Tom Moody was shaken when the Russians launched Sputnik II and its passenger, a dog named Laika, in November 1957. “It is an alarming situation,” he wrote his aunts from college in Memphis. “We have always been first at everything, and now that we aren’t, maybe it will wake us up.”
Soon, America awakened. In 1968, WKU faculty member Marvin Russell penned a poem, “Apollo Six,” his “first serious effort in this realm of expression,” and presented it to his colleague and muse, English professor Gordon Wilson. The next year, Paducah native John Scopes, who had earned notoriety in more down-to-earth pursuits–specifically, the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools–obtained a first issue cover of a stamp commemorating the Christmas message delivered by the Apollo 8 astronauts as they orbited the moon.
Bowling Green native Mary (Rodes) Helm witnessed the launch of the greatest manned mission to date, Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. Writing to her father, Judge John Rodes, she confessed her reluctance to brave the July heat in order to watch the spacecraft lift off from Cape Kennedy. But she quickly found it “a very moving and emotional experience which I did not expect.” As the rocket rose, a man behind her whispered “God speed,” and “I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks.” At a dinner attended by prominent members of the space program, she met astronauts Jim Lovell and Wally Schirra. She was struck, however, by a McDonnell-Douglas executive’s prescient question: “Where do we go from here?” Already fearing a loss of public interest after the great feat was accomplished, he nevertheless insisted that “we need space–for man’s knowledge & for the use of his creative imagination & talents.” Those sentiments were echoed by Congressman Tim Lee Carter, a Monroe County native and WKU graduate, who co-sponsored a resolution calling for international efforts “to conquer the frontiers of space exploration for the benefit of all mankind.”
When it comes to space travel, the question “Where do we go from here?” has a way of moving from the technical to the philosophical. As Marvin Russell phrased it (though perhaps not as memorably as Major Tom), Each stage, each generation, propels the next. / How much? What direction? The questions vex. / Help and hindrance combine to perplex / Actions and factions around orbiting specks.