Historians point to Apollo 11 as the moment the United States seized the edge in the Cold War, but say the “space race” really began in World War II.
It was a fight for survival as the U.S. and the Soviet Union raced to beat German scientists who were tasked with creating navigable nuclear weapons that, theoretically, could blow both nations off the map.
The aviation industry was barely 50 years old when a Blount County native, Dennis Sparks, earned his pilot’s license at 16.
Like many pilots, he had a sharp memory and an instinctive feel for engines, according to his wife, Adele Sparks.
“He was a complex and intelligent man,” Adele Sparks said. “He was so well versed in things that he was interested in. Civil War history, coin collecting, antique automobiles. He was a ham radio operator and anything he was involved in he could speak on eloquently. He also could hear an airplane flying overhead and tell you what it was.”
An electrical engineer by trade, Dennis Sparks honed his flight skills in Blount County’s Civil Air Patrol chapter, eventually setting a record for locating crashed aircraft.
He and another Blount County man, Bruce Trent, joined NASA in 1963. The lunar landing was just another work day as they sat at a panel in Mission Control.
“He said it was a job,” Adele Sparks said. “They drove in, they clocked in. They did their job, then they clocked out when it was done and they went home. He said it was after Apollo 11 that the significance of this sank in. He said they were all crowded around the control panel listening in. Pandemonium broke loose when Neil Armstrong said, ‘The Eagle has landed.’”
There were no rulebooks guiding aviation or the space industry in those days. Engineers, test pilots and numerous other industries learned by trial and error.
“Everything that they did was uncharted territory,” Adele Sparks said. “I remember that they asked one of the astronauts, John Glenn, what it felt like waiting on the launch pad to go up. He said something to the effect of, ‘All I can think about it is the mechanics went to the lowest bidder,’ and that I thought was so profound.”
Dennis Sparks left NASA and returned home to work for Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He died in 2012 at 71 after an innovative career.
Adele Sparks’ son, Bo Conner, proudly displays his stepfather’s trove of certificates in his Vonore office.
His biggest legacy, she says, was being a wonderful husband and family man.
“He was an amazing man,” Adele Sparks said. “I was blessed and fortunate to have spent 34 years with him.”
A treasured memento is a miniature wooden space shuttle given to her late husband.
“I wouldn’t part with that for anything,” Adele Sparks said.
At 4, Maryville College political and environmental science professor Mark O’Gorman’s future was mapped out when Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the moon. His first job was as a space analyst.
That also meant understanding the complex relationship between the U.S. and other countries as the Cold War melted into international cooperation.
The Soviets had launched the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, in 1957.
The Apollo mission was the first truly international venture since the U.S. had to gain permission to place communications hubs around the globe to assist the crew, he explained.
“We were still behind in the space race all through the 1960s,” O’Gorman said. “It really wasn’t until the Apollo 11 mission, and the missions that went to the Moon, that we realized that we were caught up, if not ahead. The whole Cold War, from 1947 to 1991, everything the United States did was through the lens of, ‘How is the Soviet Union going to respond?’ This became another area of rivalry: Who will get to the Moon first and own the high ground?”
The U.S. took the moral high road and didn’t block other countries from landing there, he said.
“More importantly, it was just a moment when the whole country came together,” O’Gorman said. “All we had was three (TV) channels back then and over 90% of America watched it that night. It was such an amazing thing, can we send three men up and bring them back? When I got older and studied it, you realized what a closely run operation it was. In 1967, we had the Apollo 1 mission, where three astronauts died on the launch pad. We had to completely revamp the program, and in two years, we were sending men to the moon and landing there.”
O’Gorman said outer space is mankind’s future.
“Clearly our future will be in space,” O’Gorman said. “With these kinds of technological advances we’ve made over the last 50 years, the things we did in 1969 can be done more cheaply and just as easily. We can go back to the Moon if we choose to. I think one of the big issues is, who is going to do it first? It will be a stretch to go to Mars. It took four days to get to the Moon. You are talking 10 months to get to Mars. There are some real technical challenges there.”