The History of NASA Reads like the Rocky Balboa Storyline

It's been 40 years since the first Rocky film debuted back in 1976 to incredible success. This historic film still reverberates through our modern-day culture, epitomizing the archetypal tale of the underdog and the never-give-up attitude. 

The oft-parodied Rocky training montage is symbolic of our ability as human beings to rise up and face substantial challenges head on, no matter how stacked the odds may be against us. Dig a little deeper, and this well-known tale of the underdog who becomes a champion is uncannily similar to the history of NASA.

Rocky on the Stairs
Rocky Balboa, The Italian Stallion
Image Credit: Rocky

NASA, like Rocky Balboa, didn't start off as the semi-invincible leviathan of scientific achievement that we're familiar with today. Instead, both of these underdogs got off to a rocky start (pun intended).

Early Talent, Wasted Potential

Like Rocky, NASA (before it was NASA) showed a lot of early talent. Following WW2, the United States Army captured German engineers and German V-2 rockets and subsequently imported the entire field of rocket science to American soil. Numerous research and development sites popped up all around North America, many of which employed teams of former Nazi rocket scientists.

The purpose of these sites was to engineer intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's), based on German V-2 rocket technology, that could combat the Soviet Union's own rocket science program during the Cold War-era arms race. Long before the first rockets were launched into space, they were used to launch explosive warheads at long-range targets. Combined with the recently invented nuclear warheads, this technology had all the potential of becoming world-ending.

Rocky had a rough start as well. He wasn't just a boxer on the local circuit—he was also an enforcer for a loan shark, employed to beat people up in case they didn't pay their debts. This questionable and violent background was borne out of a need for survival: a job to pay the bills (in the case of Rocky), and a military technology to compete with the Soviets (in the case of United States rockets).

Rocky in the Ring
That's not the look of a championship-level boxer.
Image Credit: Rocky

But this violent past does betray the fact that Rocky was an inherently kind and good person—a fact that, as a matter of circumstance, doesn't seem immediately obvious at first.

Both Rocky and the United States rocket program lacked proper coaching and direction in their youth. Rather than having one unified agency to direct the development of rocket technology, the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force all had separate divisions developing their own brand of rockets and rocket planes, and they weren't sharing their secrets.

Despite having all the talent in the world, these fractured divisions of rocket science were inefficient and resulted in the United States falling behind the Soviet Union in rocket supremacy. And that became glaringly obvious in 1957.

The Champ Comes To Town

Both Rocky Balboa and the United States rocket programs experienced a radical change in circumstance with the arrival of the reigning champions of their respective fields.

Boxing Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed was coming to Rocky's hometown, and when his original opponent backed out of their bout, he challenged the lesser-known and less-skilled local boxer (Rocky Balboa) to a championship bout—or, as it was put, 'the chance of a lifetime'. 

Rocky vs Apollo Creed II
Apollo Creed was a significant step up in competition.
Image Credit: Rocky II

Similarly to Apollo Creed coming to town, the Soviet Union launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957, a feat which the United States was not capable of. In both of these cases, the underdog was being challenged by the champion—the space race was officially in full-swing.

While everyone was counting Rocky out, he was busy preparing to shock the world—he finally got himself a proper trainer and, for the first time in his life, started taking boxing seriously. Despite being the underdog, Rocky was prepared to meet the challenge from Apollo Creed head-on and, with any luck, become the first person ever to survive a full 15 rounds with the Heavyweight Champion.

Rocky Training
The archetypal relatinoship between boxer and head trainer.
Image Credit: Rocky II

In 1958, the United States restructured all of its rocket development programs under one banner: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, which combined the fractured elements from the various branches of the military to create one unified civilian agency dedicated to building rockets and exploring space. 

If the Soviet Union was going to play the space game, then so was the United States of America. And neither was going to be a pushover.

NASA's Adrian

In the lead-up to the championship bout with Apollo Creed, Rocky met the love of his life: Adrian Pennino (later Balboa). NASA also found its own Adrian: United States President John F. Kennedy, who in 1962 announced that NASA would land humans on the Moon and return them to Earth before 1970 rolled around. How's that for a goal?

Rocky and Adrian
The woman that stole the Stallion's heart.
Image Credit: Rocky

But JFK didn't just make this announcement in a vacuum (like some politicians do) and allow his promise to fall through—he also ensured its practicality.

In the mid-1960's, the United States Congress increased NASA's budget five-fold in order to ensure the agency would actually have the funding to pull off JFK's Moonshot. At its peak spending in 1966, NASA received approximately 4.41% of all federal spending—almost $50 billion dollars in today's terms (NASA currently only receives about 0.48% of all federal spending, amounting to $19.3 billion in 2016).

With the combination of restructuring and support from the administration, NASA, like Rocky, found itself on the path towards greatness: a Moonshot, a huge opportunity with a very small possibility of success. The match had been set.

Outmatched, Outclassed, Outboxed

Even with the support of Mickey and Adrian, Rocky had a snowball's chance in Hell of actually defeating Apollo Creed. This is the bread and butter of the tale of the underdog.

There's a harsh reality that both boxing and technology share: momentum is everything. An average person can't just roll off the couch and become a world-class boxer; even after years of dedicated training, they would be outmatched by every other boxer out there that'd been training since adolescence. 

Rocky was no slouch, and he had competed in lower-level bouts. But he certainly wasn't a world-beater like Apollo Creed's undefeated 47 win, no loss, 100% knockout rate record would suggest.

Rocky vs Apollo Creed
One of these guys has no business being in this ring.
Image Credit: Rocky

Similarly, a country can't decide to just become a technological superpower overnight—it takes years to build the facilities, educate the scientists, and establish the logistical framework that allows for advancement and innovation in the fields of science and technology. 

Rocky and NASA found themselves in similar predicaments. NASA had a suite of somewhat capable sub-orbital rockets and rocket planes but, compared to the Soviet Space Program, Rocky and NASA looked amateurish. 

The Soviets did everything first in space: first satellite in orbit, first probe to the Moon, first animals to survive spaceflight, first man in space, first woman in space, first spacewalk, and so on. NASA seemed the perpetual underdog, unable to get a foothold anywhere. But with a clear goal and an increase in funding, they still had a chance of winning the race to the Moon.

Always a Puncher's Chance

The only weapon in Rocky's arsenal (apart from his resilience) that could seriously threaten Apollo Creed was his absolute bomb of a left hand. Rocky Balboa was a brawling, unorthodox southpaw—the very definition of having a puncher's chance.

NASA's power punch was its Saturn series of rockets, a behemoth that could literally send people to the Moon. NASA may have been behind in other areas of spacecraft development, but it got to work early on developing a rocket powerful enough to launch astronauts to the Moon—long before it had the spacecraft that could actually go there. 

Apollo Creed just didn't have an equivalent rocket. After a back-and-forth war in which both Rocky and Apollo Creed were knocked down, their bout went to a decision—for the first time in Creed's unbeaten career, he had not knocked out his opponent before the full 15 rounds was up. Creed ultimately won the controversial split decision over the underdog Balboa, and retained his title.

Rocky Out of his League
Southpaw vs Orthodox; Rocky looking to land that one big punch.
Image Credit: Rocky

As it was fated, the first bout in the space race went to a split decision loss for NASA. In 1966, while testing an Apollo capsule in a pure-oxygen environment, a spark ignited a fire and three NASA astronauts—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—were burned alive in the blaze. Originally set to be the first test of a crewed Apollo capsule in Earth orbit, the crew was lost without ever leaving the launch pad.

Just two months later, the first test of the Soviet Union's Soyuz space capsule led to the death of cosmonaut and senior engineer Vladimir Komarov when, after experiencing multiple problems in orbit, his capsule's parachutes failed to open after atmospheric re-entry. Soyuz 1 crashed into the ground at 140 kilometers per hour, killing Komarov on impact. 

Both of these setbacks identified crucial design flaws in both the Apollo and Soyuz capsules, and humanity's race to the Moon seemed doomed to outright fail. But with three years to go before the 1970 deadline, there was still time for a second run at that championship belt. 

The Rematch

While the Soviest had to contend with redesigning their failed Soyuz capsule and developing their tricky N1 Moon rocket at the same time, NASA's Moon rocket, the Saturn V, was on track. 

Against all odds, the Saturn V kept NASA on its feet. Call it preparation, call it talent, call it heart, or call it German engineering (the lead engineer on the Saturn V rocket was Werner Von Braun, a former Nazi SS Officer)—NASA, like Rocky, kept plodding forward, walking right through the Soviet jab like it was nothing. 

Rocky Showing Heart
Both Rocky and Apollo brought their A-game to the rematch.
Image Credit: Rocky II

A perfect example of resiliency, the Saturn family of rockets, despite their complexity, never had a catastrophic failure during launch. The Saturn V remains, to this day, the most successful rocket ever launched by humankind.

Years of constant iteration and improvement on the part of NASA saw its Apollo space program coming together towards the tail end of the 1960's. In late 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the Moon with three astronauts on board. A 1969 came around, all the chips were down.

In the Rocky II rematch, Apollo Creed wanted to prove a point—that the first match was a fluke—and defeat Rocky Balboa within the first few rounds. When the bout began, Rocky went down in both the first and second rounds, but both times he got back up. He subsequently lost most of the following rounds, and going into the 15th and final round was down on the scorecards.

In the final round, Rocky traded blows with Apollo and both men were wobbled. Rocky then landed a looping bomb of a left hook on the chin of Apollo Creed, and both men went down. Rocky managed to get up before the 10-count, while Apollo collapsed to the canvas. Rocky became the new undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world.

NASA's Apollo 11 landed the first men on the Moon on July 20, 1969—just five months short of the 1970 deadline set by JFK some seven years prior. Rocky had only wanted to prove that he could go the distance with Creed, and prove that their first bout wasn't a fluke, and he ended up winning 

The Soviets had attempted to launch the under-developed N1, but after four consecutive test-flight launch failures (and ultimately the success of Apollo 11), they scrapped their plans for a human Moon landing altogether. After a total of nine Apollo flights to the Moon (carrying 24 astronauts into Lunar orbit and 12 to the Lunar surface), no human beings have traveled beyond Low-Earth Orbit since. 

The Reigning Champion

The Champ is Here
The American Dream being realized.
Image Credit: Rocky II

Following six successful Apollo missions to the Lunar surface and after returning hundreds of kilograms of Moon rocks to Earth for study, NASA enjoyed years of admiration as the undisputed champion of space following their successful conquering of the Moon.

The agency went on to develop the Space Shuttle, a futuristic-looking winged spacecraft that could cruise to a runway landing upon returning to Earth from space. But despite its outward appearance, it was a far less capable spacecraft than the Apollo capsule had been.

The Space Shuttle was incapable of carrying humans beyond Earth orbit, and therefore incapable of pushing the frontier of space exploration any further. As a result, enthusiasm for NASA's human spaceflight program sort of died off.

A Reality Check

Rocky had been enjoying the fame and fortune of being Heavyweight Champion of the world brought. Following a few successful title defenses, it was revealed to him that his manager had been purposely dodging top contenders for the title—protecting Rocky by not putting him in danger.

Rocky vs Clubber Lang
A challenger appears, and he's pissed off that Rocky's been ducking him.
Image Credit: Rocky III

The appearance of #1 contender Clubber Lang forced a reality check, knocking out Rocky Balboa in the second round and making him look foolish. Reality had set in: the former champion may have passed his prime.

Rocky Knocked Down
Just as he was starting to look invincible...
Image Credit: Rocky III

In 1986, NASA's Challenger space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members on board. NASA got knocked out cold, and the agency seemed almost incompetent.

The Return of the Champ

After his loss to Clubber Lang, Rocky needed to go back to the drawing board and train harder and smarter than ever before. His return to the ring saw him put on a spectacular show and, with a renewed vigor, he once again looked unstoppable. 

Clubber Lang Knocked Down
A true champion is able to get up after a fall and come back stronger.
Image Credit: Rocky III

NASA also had to go back to the drawing board following the loss of Challenger. The measure of a true champion is the ability to pick-up after a loss and come back stronger than before, and the agency was able to do that—for the most part—after redesigning some critical components of the Space Shuttle.

The shuttle returned to service in 1988, just less than three years after the Challenger explosion occurred, and it was more or less business as usual. Post-Apollo, non-deep-space usual, that is.

An International Challenge

Eventually, the Soviet Union burst onto the professional boxing circuit with a super-athlete named Ivan Drago. Upon challenging any American contender to an exhibition bout, Rocky's rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed accepted a bout with the Soviet destroyer.

With Rocky in his corner, Creed went out to battle with Drago and got demolished. Having forced Rocky to promise not to throw in the towel no matter how bad things got, Drago eventually kills Creed in the ring after a brutal combination of blows.

Rocky vs Drago
This just doesn't even look fair at all...
Image Credit: Rocky IV

For NASA, disaster struck yet again in the form of yet another Space Shuttle catastrophe, in which another seven astronauts lost their lives. Columbia disintegrated while re-entering Earth's atmosphere in 2003, a result of damage to its heat shield that was sustained during launch. An echo of the Challenger disaster, NASA again looked incompetent.

And without any sort of deep-space exploration program to speak of (having been confined to Low-Earth Orbit in the Space Shuttle), the agency had to find a way to justify the very existence of its human spaceflight program. Both Rocky and NASA had to decide what to do next.

Rocky decided to avenge his friend by challenging Drago to a match in the Soviet Union. Having been long retired due to ongoing medical concerns (ie. brain damage), Rocky was essentially risking his life by challenging Drago. Like Apollo, he refused to throw in the towel.

NASA was put in a similar position. The agency couldn't justify the risk of potentially losing another Space Shuttle crew, but at the same time, they couldn't abandon their long history of human spaceflight due to previously known and accepted risks (space is hard, and the risk of failure is always present). It was a catch-22: continue the Space Shuttle and lose another crew, shame on you. Discontinue the shuttle program because you're afraid to lose another crew, also shame on you. 

The only option available for NASA was to make its comeback and win. Anything short of complete success could doom the agency entirely; losing another crew on another shuttle mission was simply not an option.

Rocky Cracks Drago with a Left Hook
... For the big Russian guy, that is.
Image Credit: Rocky IV

The bout with Drago saw Rocky as the underdog yet again, this time by a margin reminiscent of his first bout with Apollo Creed. With his resilience on full display, the American boxer was able to take so many punches from Drago that the Soviet boxer eventually ran out of steam and lost the bout by KO in the 15th round. Following the bout, Rocky retired due to sustained brain trauma.

NASA went on to use the Space Shuttle to complete construction of the International Space Station. The shuttle was finally retired in 2011 without ever losing another crew member. But without a spacecraft of its own, NASA was semi-retired from human spaceflight. The resulting void has seen startup rocket companies, like Virgin Glactic, SpaceX, and Blue Origin begin development of their own rockets to take humans into space.

Making a Comeback

Old Rocky
"Did someone say 'Grandpa'!?"
Image Credit: Rocky Balboa

Rocky eventually made a return to the ring in his mid-50's, sparked by the death of Adrian and his overall feeling of loneliness. The bout saw him go to war with the Heavyweight Champion in a grueling 'exhibition' match in which he only slightly lost. A true champion always has one last great fight left in him.

NASA has also pledged to re-enter the human spaceflight business by developing its Orion capsule and heavy-lift SLS rocket, sort of reminiscent of the Apollo and Saturn V of old. These technologies are intended to eventually take humans to Mars, and first human test flights are planned for sometime in the 2020's. NASA, like Rocky, may yet show that the old dog is still capable of shocking the world.

Mentor to a New Generation

These days, NASA is aware that these rising rocket companies are hotbeds for innovation. NASA had never landed any sort of rocket upright after launching it. Now, two private companies have done just that: Blue Origin has launched and re-landed its sub-orbital New Shepard rocket multiple times, and SpaceX has returned multiple boosters to the launch pad after launching payloads into orbit. 

Whereas NASA has now adopted the slow-burn tactics of lengthy development and perfect implementation, it can still benefit from the youthful vigor of its commercial spaceflight partners. SpaceX and Boeing are contracted to begin shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station within the next two years. 

Rocky and Adonis Creed
The grizzled vet guiding the next-generation.
Image Credit: Creed

In his old age, Rocky has become a mentor to the up-and-coming next generation of boxers. Most recently, Rocky trained Apollo Creed's son, Adonis, to pick up the gloves and box at a championship-level before he was ready. Like Rocky, he took a split decision loss, but he won't stop there.

SpaceX is like the Adonis Creed of spaceflight: it's got plenty of talent, has faced plenty of hardship, and it may have rushed ahead too quickly too soon. SpaceX has seen a string of incredibly promising achievements, but at the same time a string of failures. But that doesn't mean it's not the future of spaceflight.

SpaceX may end up taking humanity to Mars while aging former champs like NASA sink into retirement. Or, it could go the other way. If the series of seven Rocky films has taught us anything, it's that the underdog always has a puncher's chance.

The last thing to go in any fighter is punching power. And for a brawler like Rocky Balboa, or a powerhouse like NASA, that's a dangerous weapon to possess. NASA still has that knockout power it put on display in the 1960's and 1970's with the Apollo Moon landings: the ability to awe and inspire humanity in a united pursuit of scientific achievement.

In the Journey to Mars, NASA sure looks like an underdog contender taking on an undefeated foe: the cosmos itself. Let's just hope that the Rocky Balboa of spaceflight is able to pull out the KO. Brawlers tend to do poorly when a bout gets dragged to a decision.

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  • Amy Shira Teitel, "Breaking The Chains of Gravity"
    • A lot of what I know about the early days of rocket science I learned from this book, so definitely check it out if you're interested in the topic.