On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted into space with three men aboard. Four days later, two of them walked on the moon, the first humans to touch down on another celestial body. Most Americans today don’t fully comprehend why such an expensive and herculean accomplishment seemed so crucial. The Apollo program cost about $177 billion in 2019 dollars, and required a decade of work from more than 400,000 Americans. Just as elusive is the program’s lasting impact.
Even with 50 years’ hindsight, we may not yet fully realize the moonshot’s true worth. But an attempt at understanding how the manned space program began, and why, can provide a starting point.
The Apollo program was conceived at the height of the Cold War. For many Americans now, that conflict is little more than a romanticized background for James Bond movies and John le Carre novels. But at the time, the struggle between the capitalistic, democratic nations of the free world, led by the United States, and the authoritarian, expansionist communism of the Soviet Union was dead serious. Even more alarming than the Russian threat to democracy’s survival was the very real possibility of all-out, ruinous nuclear war.
The U.S. entered the space race soon after the Soviets’ October 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. One goal was national security; the U.S.S.R. couldn’t be allowed to dominate the skies. But another, more subtle reason may have been just as important: national prestige.
The impact of the U.S. space program on our daily lives is almost incalculable.
Polls in the years immediately following Sputnik and other early Soviet space triumphs showed that the U.S.S.R. was considered to be far ahead of the U.S. in critical areas of science and technology, and some of those polled were in Western Europe, home to many of our most loyal allies. As the two superpowers jostled for influence among neutral, non-aligned nations, every move forward for one side was perceived as a move backward for the other.
In April 1961, the U.S. was reeling. The humiliating debacle of the Bay of Pigs — the botched U.S.-backed invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba — came just a week after another historic Soviet space achievement: Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” orbit of the planet.
The next month, in a speech before Congress, President Kennedy boldly seized the initiative. “I believe,” he said, “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.” Congress agreed, and voted to fund the massive undertaking.
At first, the words seemed empty. After Gagarin’s orbit, the U.S.S.R. went on to tally the first spacewalk and the first woman in space. Then, over a span of 20 months in 1965 and 1966, the Gemini program’s 10 missions steadily pulled the U.S. abreast of and finally ahead of the Soviets. The successes of the Apollo program, and Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” combined for the decisive blow. (The U.S.S.R. had had its own moon landing project, but it was abandoned after several disastrous test launches of their gargantuan rocket booster.)
Can we precisely measure the effect of the Apollo triumph and its technological audacity on our international prestige and on the Cold War? No, such intangibles are impervious to exact assessment. But it clearly made a difference. Our winning the Cold War resulted in the more or less steady and safe world order that is still in place a half-century later, with communism experiencing few advances and a great many setbacks.
The U.S. effort didn’t escape criticism. Shouldn’t all that money have been spent on Earth’s social problems, rather than in the heavens? It’s an analysis that ignores a Washington reality: Just because money isn’t spent on one government program doesn’t mean it will be transferred to another. Besides, every penny spent on the Apollo program was spent on Earth, paying the salaries of hundreds of thousands of factory workers, subcontractors, scientists, engineers and technicians.
The impact of the U.S. space program on our daily lives is almost incalculable. It initiated, pioneered or inspired advances and inventions in every kind of satellite (communications, weather, navigation, military), in medical instrumentation, in digital imaging and, of course, in computers — NASA’s early purchase of 1 million microchips kickstarted that nascent industry. In 1975, just three years after the last Apollo mission, the program’s return on investment was estimated at 15 to 1. By now it’s off the charts. It’s doubtful any other government-funded project has yielded as many dividends.
Beyond these achievements, Apollo’s most profound legacy may be its effect on the human spirit. It was our first step — a baby step, but an important one — onto another celestial body, and as such, affirmed our birthright as explorers. As Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot, once said, “People will go where they can go.” Whether it’s over the hill to the next valley, or through space to the next world, they always have. When one considers the many dire threats facing humanity today, it’s more a case that people must go where they can go. And as long as some part of us is human — even thousands or millions of years in our evolutionary future — we always will.
James Donovan’s “Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11” was published in March.
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