A visit to Cork next Saturday by retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will recall the city’s fascinating connections with the Space Age.
It will link US president John F Kennedy and his assassination 51 years ago with his country’s efforts to put men on the moon.
And it will highlight the story of how schoolboy plans to scale an orchard wall on the northside of Cork City helped Kennedy to defend his costly space programme the day before he was shot dead in Dallas.
Kennedy’s first stop on his trip to Texas in November 1963 was at Brooks Air Force Base outside San Antonio, where he dedicated an aerospace medical centre in what was his last official act as president.
He said there would be, as there always are, pressures in the country to do less in the space programme area as in so many others, and temptations to do something else that is perhaps easier.
“But this research here must go on,” he said. “This space effort must go on. The conquest of space must and will go ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with confidence and conviction.”
Despite all its wealth and power, the US had fallen behind the Soviet Union long before Kennedy was elected president in 1960.
Three years earlier, the Soviets had launched the satellite Sputnik 1, causing much anxiety among Americans that their country was trailing their superpower Communist rival.
Kennedy was less than three months in office when America suffered another set back when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey into outer space in April 1961.
Gagarin’s orbit of the earth in his Vostok spacecraft captured the world’s imagination and set Cold War alarm bells ringing in Washington.
Kennedy moved fast not only to match the Soviets but to overtake them in the space race and restore America’s confidence and its place in the world.
He went before a joint session of Congress seeking an additional $7bn to $9bn over the following five years for his space programme.
Kennedy pledged that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.
America did overtake the Soviets in the space race and was the first to land men on the moon as Kennedy promised.
However, even as he headed to Texas on November 21, 1963, Kennedy was being sharply criticised over the cost of the space programme, and efforts were being made in Congress to reduce the budget.
Kennedy felt he had to defend his programme in San Antonio and he turned to the works of Frank O’Connor to help him do so.
Kennedy was an avid student of Irish history and literature and could quote speeches and poems at will. One of the writers whose work he had read was O’Connor, who was born on the northside of Cork City in 1903.
O’Connor, one of Ireland’s great short story writers, outlined in An Only Child a moving story of early childhood and how his memories began in Blarney St.
He and his friends referred to it as Blarney Lane because it followed the track of an old lane from Cork to Blarney, beginning on Shandon St.
“Up here,” O’Connor wrote, “we were just on the edge of the open country, and behind the house were high windy fields that are now all built over.”
Linking the efforts by the US to further explore space travel with the happy schoolboy wanderings on the edge of Cork City might seem a far stretch to many people.
But to Kennedy there was a link and he skilfully used it that day in San Antonio in the presence of vice president Lyndon Johnson and US military leaders.
He said O’Connor tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside.
When they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall — and then they had no choice but to follow them.
Kennedy went on: “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.
“Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against.”
He pledged that America, with the help and support of all its citizens, including those in the space initiative, “will climb this wall with safety and with speed — and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side”.
Kennedy’s remarks reached newsrooms in Ireland later that night and a perceptive journalist telephoned O’Connor. He informed the writer the US president had quoted from his autobiography, An Only Child, in San Antonio and outlined the context in which he had done so.
O’Connor was pleased. “I think it is a very brilliant use of the quotation and I would never have thought of it myself,” he said.
Kennedy’s remarks and O’Connor’s reaction were published hours before the Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas.
They also had an echo in Cork seven years later, when the Apollo 13 astronauts, James Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise, the first men rescued from space, visited the city as part of a goodwill mission to Ireland.
The trio, who had earlier met with President Eamon de Valera in Dublin, travelled to Cork by train, which passed through the northside of the city before entering Glanmire Station.
Lovell, Swigert, and Haise, whose own adventures would become the subject of a Hollywood film, would surely have been intrigued had they been familiar with the terrain.
For it is near where O’Connor and his friends roamed all those years before, leading to the story that inspired Kennedy when defending his space programme, which ultimately landed men on the moon and brought them back safely to earth.
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