13th February 2020
On the 20th of July 1969, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and it’s two passengers, Commander Neil Armstrong and module pilot Buzz Aldrin, successfully landed on the surface of the moon. This unprecedented achievement was the result of a decade of intense effort by the United States of America, at a time of political turmoil, racial tension and global conflict: an effort which involved not just the scientists at NASA, but every American, and brought a fractured and divided nation together through a renewed sense of patriotism, exceptionalism and common purpose. Humans landing on the moon represented a fundamental shift in how we as a people started to view ourselves and was the grand peak of a two-decade long Space Race with the USSR – part of a bitter cold war which only concluded in 1991. However, the question of whether this ‘giant leap for mankind’ was of real lasting value and significance is still up for debate.
The origin of the Space Race lies in the direct aftermath of the Second World War – where American foreign policy under the Truman Doctrine was to counter the geopolitical expansion of the Soviet Union. The race itself began in July-August of 1955, when the United States announced its intent to launch artificial satellites within the next few years. Four days later, the Soviet Union responded by announcing that they would launch a satellite ‘in the near future’. The scene was set, and what followed was an arms race of increasing magnitude, which most Americans believe peaked with landing on the moon. Therefore, the conclusion can be made that despite what President Kennedy would go on to say, that the Apollo mission was about demonstrating America’s dominance and global leadership in a mutually destructive competition with the Soviet Union – not getting to the moon for the sake of taking on a challenge.
By the early 1960s, it looked as though the Soviet Union had the lead: In 1957, they launched the first satellite into orbit, Sputnik, and in 1961 they sent the first human to space, Yuri Gagarin. Before Gagarin’s successful flight, the new American President, John F Kennedy’s support for the Space Program was lukewarm – he attacked Eisenhower’s apparent fixation with Space during the 1960 election, and Jerome Wiesner of MIT was quoted as saying that “If Kennedy could have opted out of a big space program without hurting the country in his judgment, he would have.” Therefore, his May 1961 speech to congress, in which he famously set the goal of landing American on the moon within the decade, was affected by a great number of political factors. Perhaps Kennedy saw a personal benefit to this competition – a grand American adventure with him at the helm would have helped him win re-election, and most certainly has shaped his legacy. Embarrassed by the Soviets’ achievements, and the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy set his sights to defeat the Communists at something – getting to the moon.
This goal encapsulated all the best qualities of the United States during this time, qualities which generations past strived to adopt, and generations after the Space Race tried to and are still trying to revive. To set an inconceivably difficult national goal, with unavoidable human efforts and expenditures attached, at a time when the Vietnam war was ongoing, Civil Rights tensions were at the same level as the 1930s, and the Soviet Union was ahead by all measures, and then to actually achieve it, despite the odds, sums up what made America great. In politics and history, perception equals reality, and even though President Kennedy may have had ulterior motives while setting this target, while his purpose and legacy arose out of serendipity and chance, luckily coinciding with his first 100 days, what followed in the hearts and minds of a people was unprecedented at the time and has not been replicated today. The national pride, purpose and patriotism that continued after Kennedy’s assassination provides a target for American politicians now and is cited by Republicans and Democrats alike as among the greatest points in human and American history.
Almost every American who was above the age of 7 or 8 when Apollo 11 landed can distinctly remember watching the event take place on TV, at home or in a public area, with family or friends. An event that becomes seared into a national consciousness for all the right reasons, one that is unifying and awe-inspiring to almost all, rarely if ever comes about. We have no accounts that describe reactions to the signing of the Magna Carta, or the invention of electricity – it was a normal day for most; the change and effects took time, the progress was slow. However, when the first humans landed on the moon, the news hit the world and spread all across it like lightning. It was immediate and unforgettable. While the difficult journey to get there took place from 1961 to 1969, there was strong opposition. Political opponents of Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson criticized NASA as an example of frivolous government spending, and even those who worked on the project had doubts about importance and feasibility. But when Neil Armstrong declared to the world: ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’, the debate came to an end. From Warsaw, where Americans visiting at the time were celebrated in defiance of Poland’s Soviet rulers, to Yugoslavia, where its people had access to a live television feed for the first time, the world came together in awe.
What the Moon landing proved to the world is important when considering it’s significance: It proved to a world increasingly consumed by communism and increasingly controlled by the Soviet Union that progress did not rely on one-party rule. A chief argument made by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and still made by the Chinese Communist Party today, is that only with the same government for decades, can long-term projects be accomplished, though perhaps the greatest long-term project of all was done in a democracy: Inspired by Truman (Democrat) and Eisenhower (Republican), conceptualised by Kennedy (Democrat), continued by Johnson (Democrat) after Kennedy was assassinated, and concluded under Nixon (Republican).
A common view of the Moon landing is that it had little long-lasting benefit – therefore not historically significant – but this argument is easily debunked when looking at the vast technological achievements brought about by the Apollo Mission. Sport shoes were completely re-designed to be more like Space boots, because NASA put so much care into making shock absorption, grip and stability as good as possible. The Spacesuit material is stronger than steel and weighs less than 5 ounces per square foot, specifically tailored to meet translucency, maintenance, temperature exposure and reflectivity standards posed by the moon’s surface and is used widely today. Security systems were vastly improved. The modern Solar Panel comes from NASA’s innovation on the Apollo Project. Seismology detectors were completely re-designed. Heart monitors were invented, and cooling technology invented in the Space Race are now used by armoured vehicle crews, firefighters and NASCAR drivers. In almost every area of technological innovation – Biology, Physics, Computer Science, Chemistry, Product Design, Health – the NASA mission contributed heavily, bringing about a wave of technological innovation and progress. Therefore, not only did Apollo inspire a nation and the globe, it was one of the biggest causes for scientific advancement of the 21st century.
Perhaps the best way to view the Apollo mission is through what is happening in the field of Space today, and sadly, this may be the biggest detractor from Apollo’s case. In the 1960s, humanity was capable of putting people on the Moon, a separate heavenly body. Today, we barely have the capacity to put someone in lower orbit. The last time someone went to the moon was in 1972, and Human interest has gone down drastically in space. It’s understandable, then, why some believe that we as a race peaked in 1969, and in the 50 years that followed, while we have progressed further, the rate of advancement is not nearly what it should be, especially in the field of Aerospace.
Interestingly however, the torch, as it slowly falls from the hands of superpower governments like the United States and Russia, has been picked up in recent years by the one thing America is notorious for: Private Enterprise. Companies headed up by Billionaires like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and the most advanced, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are grappling to pick up the mantle. So, the story of Humans in space is far from over: from plans to send Humans to Mars, to commercial space vacations, free Enterprise is now leading the charge in a new Space Race. That, then, is the Apollo Mission’s greatest legacy: proving what humans are capable of, providing a roadmap for national co-operation in the face of hardship, and inspiring a new generation, in fact many new generations to come, to believe in Humanity.
Unlike founding documents or inventions, the historical significance of the seismic event of putting people on the moon is constantly changing and evolving. While the memories and feelings of people who lived to see the event happen are secured forever and will always be what makes the moon landing special, it’s place in history depends on what we as a species do next. If great countries can once again find inner balance and unity towards a singular goal, and believe in their own potential as Kennedy once did, the moon landing will be remembered not just as the greatest achievement of the 20th century, but the starting point for the incredible adventure that takes place in the 21st and 22nd centuries. However, if humanity becomes absorbed by day-to-day pettiness and manmade issues, ignoring the bigger picture, the moon landing will be remembered very differently – as a singular event in human history, still one of greatness, but with no lasting effects. Therefore, the historical significance of landing on the moon will be great, no matter what, but the story told hundreds of years from now about it will depend on how humanity chooses to progress.
Adam Safi Khan