Contributors: Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth

Memories, emotions, and inspiration followed my every step as I walked through the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida last month – “a place where dreams do come true,” to quote American Astronaut Robert Crippen.

This article is about how Americans have made those dreams come true for their nation. Many lives were lost in training and during space flights. The work that brought America the success in space of which the nation is justifiably proud was undertaken by men and women who worked hard, sacrificed much, took great risks, solved unimaginable technical problems. What astronauts did, and many still do, I find truly remarkable and inspirational.

I am writing this article at a time opposition Cambodian democrats have joined forces and launched their new united “Cambodian Democratic Movement for National Rescue” to “create a true ‘people’s movement’ that caters to all sectors of Cambodian society . . . for change and capability to build a better society.”

Democrats’ unity is a great step forward. If history is a guide, many problems await the CDMNR, now the National Salvation Party, which must be innovative, creative, and smart. No problem is unmanageable. The future is not preordained. People make the future. The motto of the US space program is one the leaders of the CDMNR may want to post: “Failure is Not an Option!”

To the CDMNR, I dedicate this article.

I remember

I was a small kid from Russey-keo village. I rode an old bike with determination, trying to keep up with an older schoolmate from Phnom Penh riding a shiny bike. As he pedaled, he spoke knowingly of the state radio’s broadcast about a Russian satellite, Sputnik, the size of a basketball, that was orbiting the Earth every 98 minutes. It was in October 1957. I was full of curiosity and imagination. I stole nights away from my father’s routine nightly lecture on schooling and living to look up into the sky in search of that tiny light that moved amidst the stars.

A month later, in November, came more news about another Russian Sputnik that orbited the Earth with a dog named Laika aboard. Wow, those Russians were leaving the Americans behind!


Impressed, I believed the Soviet Union would be the place to receive higher education.

But when the opportunity emerged to participate in a student exchange program, American Field Service, to spend senior year in a high school and live with an American family, I quickly applied for a scholarship.
In the summer of 1961 I was on an airplane for the first time, heading for the United States. I spent the 1961-62 school year in high school and lived with an American family in Ohio.

A few months earlier, in January 1961, John F. Kennedy had taken office as President of the United States – the second youngest president after Teddy Roosevelt.

Many things happened when I was in Ohio: Increased United States involvement in the Vietnam War; the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961; a scary 13-day confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union in the October 14-28 Cuban Missile Crisis (JFK said his administration would use nuclear weapons to stop the Soviets from building medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile bases in Cuba that threatened the US).

In America, news was more plentiful than it had been in Phnom Penh, and I was eager to know about the larger world in which I found myself. For America as an international actor, all the news was not positive. I learned that a US U-2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers over the Soviet Union had been captured in 1960; that the US supported Bay of Pigs invasion had been defeated by the Cubans; and that Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space in April 1961. The first American Astronaut, Alan Shepard, who went into space on May 5, 1961, did not orbit the Earth, but flew a suborbital flight. US Astronaut John Glenn did orbit the earth three times on his flight in February 1962.

Kennedy’s addresses

While in high school, I read and copied two speeches made by President Kennedy in 1961: His January inaugural address and his May 25 address to the Congress.

I even memorized some of Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “Let every nation know… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”; “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”; “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

I read and reread Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress, which I found very inspirational and awesome: “We are not against any man – or any nation – or any system – except as it is hostile to freedom . . . I am here to promote the freedom doctrine”; “We stand, as we have always stood from our earliest beginnings, for the independence and equality of all nations. This nation was born of revolution and raised in freedom. And we do not intend to leave an open road to despotism”; “we are engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals we share with all mankind . . .”

Americans “should go to the moon”

It felt as though President Kennedy was speaking directly to me when he told Congress of the impact of the Soviet Union’s dramatic achievement in space in 1957. It was, he said, “on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” He declared, “If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny,” now is “time for a great new American enterprise.”

Acknowledging the Soviets had “many months of lead time” with their “large rocket engines,” Kennedy declared, “while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

And he announced, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

“[I]n a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon – if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”

“[I]t is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.”

Kennedy concluded: “[W]e are determined, as a nation in1961 that freedom shall survive and succeed – and whatever the peril and set-backs, we have some very large advantages.” Americans “are on the side of liberty,” he said, and “We have friends and allies all over the world who share our devotion to freedom.”

But, “our greatest asset in this struggle is the American people.”

And the American people responded to Kennedy.

“One small step for man”

So, as I moved about the Kennedy Space Center last month, read inscriptions, inspected photos, watched films, examined spacecraft engines and equipment on display, observed launch sites, history and reality appeared before my eyes. President Kennedy’s 1961 proposed national goal to land an American on the moon and to return him/her “safely to the Earth” was fulfilled in 1969 with the American landing of the first humans on the moon and with their return safely to the Earth.

I was in awe to see Complex 39A where the Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched by a Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969, carrying three Astronauts to the Moon: Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin Jr.

I remember watching television broadcast live the landing of the Lunar Module, the Eagle, piloted by Aldrin as it landed in the Mare Tranquillitaris (Sea of Tranquility) on July 20, 1969 – more than 102 hours after launch. Collins stayed in the Command Module lunar orbit, while Armstrong and Aldrin spent more than two hours outside the spacecraft on the moon’s surface.

Armstrong’s first words as his foot touched the Moon surface were: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He and Aldrin stayed more than 2 hours on the lunar surface before lifting off to rejoin Collins in the Command Module. All 3 returned safely to Earth after traveling in space for 8 days, and landed in the Pacific Ocean on July 24.

Inconvenience, hardship, sacrifice

Kennedy’s warning, “unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make [the Moon goal] successful,” were meant to prepare the country for the great sacrifices that would be demanded of those who sought to explore this next frontier. Three astronauts were killed in a launch pad fire in January 1967 as they practiced for the launch of Apollo 1; in November of that year an Air Force major died as he piloted (his seventh flight) the American X-15 rocket plane. He was posthumously awarded an astronaut wing.

Other US Astronaut fatalities on spaceflights occurred before a watching nation and included the disintegration in January 1986 during launch of Space Shuttle Challenger, killing all crew members on board; the disintegration in February 2003 of Space Shuttle Columbia, which broke up and fell in fragments over Texas and Louisiana 16 days after launch and 16 minutes before scheduled landing, killing all 7 crew members, including Israeli Ilan Ramon.

Even more Astronauts died during spaceflight training.

Kennedy said, “I have not asked for a single program which did not cause one or all Americans some inconvenience, or some hardship, or some sacrifice. But they have responded . . .”

Failure is not an option!

And there was Apollo 13, launched on April 11, 1970, headed for the moon. An explosion on board forced it to circle the moon without landing. The flight director, Gen Kranz, brought the crew of three astronauts back to Earth on April 17th after a harrowing ordeal in which seemingly unsolvable technical problems that would have caused the spaceship and its passengers to be lost forever were solved ingeniously and collaboratively by the astronauts and the team on the ground in Houston.

“We’ve never lost an American in space and we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option!” said Kranz famously.

Before I left the Kennedy Space Center, I picked up a poster, “Failure is not an option.”

And my mind wandered to Cambodians fighting for rights and freedom of the Khmer people.


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at


Document ID :AHRC-ETC-025-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 11-08-2012