It was a Cold War victory at a moment when the country needed one.
In an Oval Office meeting a few days after Soviet Russia launched Sputnik in October 1957, two points emerged. Eisenhower’s deputy defense secretary, Donald Quarles, told the president that “there was no doubt that the Redstone, had it been used, could have orbited a satellite a year or more ago.” The administration had, for whatever reason, chosen to try to put a civilian face on the budding U.S. space program, and the Army’s Redstone rocket didn’t fit the image that Ike wanted to present.
More important was Quarles’s point that “the Russians have in fact done us a good turn, unintentionally, in establishing the concept of freedom of international space — this seems to be generally accepted as orbital space, in which the missile is making an inoffensive passage.” This concept opened the way for America’s spy satellites to pass over the closed Communist empire, providing the U.S. and the West in general with an important, but not decisive, long-term advantage.
The politics of space, however, were more complicated. Sputnik gave both the USSR and the Democrats in Congress a great deal of propaganda leverage to use against Eisenhower. The president’s response was to create NASA as a supposedly pure civilian space agency and to put the U.S. into what became known as “The Space Race.” The administration also began development of a million-pound-thrust rocket engine, the F-1, which eventually powered the Saturn V, which took Americans to the moon.
When President Kennedy announced that America would “land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth,” the most important tool needed to carry out his vision was already under development. In spite of the negative attitude of his advisers, notably his science adviser Jerome Wiesner (later head of MIT), JFK was convinced that the nation could succeed and that he would benefit politically from the effort.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, most Americans will just be happy to celebrate the achievement. Some will regret that we have not yet returned people to the moon, or for that matter anywhere outside low earth orbit; a few radicals, including radical environmentalists, will curse the whole idea of space exploration. But for most Americans it will be a vaguely pleasant bit of history.
Yet the Apollo program is of vital historical importance. First of all, it was a hard-won Cold War victory at a moment when the long struggle against Soviet imperial Communism was not going at all well, and when U.S. society was looking into the abyss of riots, terrorism, and social disintegration. For just a moment, the nation stopped and watched while two of its truly best and brightest sons became the first humans to walk on another celestial body. Apollo 11 was an antidote to despair, and in the years to come, in the midst of defeat in Vietnam and a scandal that destroyed a president, it reminded many Americans of just what their nation could do when it tried hard enough.
It also helped limit the loss of U.S. standing in the world at a time when things looked pretty bad. 1969 was right in the middle of what Paul Johnson called “America’s Suicide Attempt.” All over the world people were convinced that the U.S. was losing the Cold War and that Communism was indeed the wave of the future. The fact that we beat the USSR to the moon made at least a few Europeans and Asians reconsider their pessimism.
Domestically, Apollo was the last and greatest of the giant New Deal projects. Like the Tennessee Valley Authority (which led to new developments in explosives) and the Colombia River Project (aluminum), the moon program added directly to America’s overall military strength, building up national expertise in rocketry, computers, space navigation, etc. It also fulfilled the New Deal objective of bringing industrial development to the South, a Democratic-party stronghold.
The project could never have succeeded without the obsessive support of Lyndon Johnson, the last pure New Deal president. Aside from LBJ, the presidents most enthusiastic about space have tended to be ones who believed in America’s great destiny: Reagan, both Bushes, and now perhaps Trump. Managerial presidents such as Eisenhower, JFK, and Bill Clinton can be persuaded to support the program for pragmatic reasons. Others, such as Nixon and Obama, natural pessimists, tended to be hostile or at best indifferent to the idea but did not want to be remembered as, in the phrase that Nixon supposedly used, “the president who grounded the astronauts.”
Of course any president can propose, but in the end it is Congress, in its collective wisdom, that disposes. Given the circumstances and the political alignments in the 1960s, it is hard to imagine that, even if the GOP had been in control of part or even all of Congress, the Apollo program would have been canceled. Today’s intense partisanship, by contrast, makes it difficult to carry out long-term space projects.
The moon landing was also part of a plan for space exploration that was promoted in cartoons by Werner von Braun and Walt Disney. That vision included a reusable rocket plane, a space station, a moon base, and eventually settlements on Mars. It’s amazing to note that a TV show from the pre-Sputnik era is still influencing America’s space policy. If one looks at pictures of the giant rocket ships being built by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, one can see bits of designs that flickered across America’s TV screens in 1955.
The dream of turning humanity into a multi-planet species is alive and well. A new, commercially oriented industry is emerging, and it depends more on investors than on politicians. Clusters of small, networked satellites are slowly replacing the large and very costly communications satellites. This is just part of the change that is coming. There are now companies making plans to mine the moon and the asteroids, to build manufacturing facilities in space, and to develop space tourism.
With some reluctance, NASA has learned to cooperate with the so-called “New Space” industry. Opening up the International Space Station to tourism, even when the tourists were transported via Russian spacecraft, was a major step in convincing the U.S. space agency that it had no choice but to adapt to a new way of doing business.
Technologically and politically, Apollo firmly belongs to the past, but the moon still orbits the Earth and the rest of the solar system is open for human exploration. If we are in a new space race, the moon is still the principal prize, just as it was during the last one. Trump may speak of planting the U.S. flag on Mars, but for the moment his administration is focused closer to home.
The great science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, whom no one could have accused of being an American nationalist, wrote that “we realize if any nation has mastery of the Moon, it will determine not merely the fate of the Earth, but the whole accessible universe.” This sounds like hyperbole now, just as it did in the 1960s, but no one should doubt that someday soon it will be an obvious fact of political and economic life.