With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing around the corner on 20 July, celebrations, recollections, and analyses of that historic achievement aim to fill up television screens and weigh down bookshelves.
Now a new book by former NASA chief historian Roger Launius provides a look back, from a U.S. outlook, at the political, technological, and economic challenges in the race to the Moon and that first Moon landing. The book, filled with drama even though we know the outcome, provides fascinating perspectives about the meaning and legacy of the Moon landing.
“The astronauts who first landed on the Moon half a century ago carried with them the hopes and wishes of all whom they had left behind on Earth, as well as uncertainty about what they would experience on the lunar surface,” Launius writes in Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings, which was released this month. “Setting foot on another world, they knew, would be the climax of humanity’s greatest adventure to date.”
Indeed, Launius notes that former U.S. president Richard Nixon declared that the Apollo Moon landing made for “the greatest week since the beginning of the world, the creation,” and former NASA rocket developer Wernher von Braun compared the landing to the moment when the first creature left the sea for dry land.
“All of these were overstatements, but virtually everyone embraced the flight of Apollo 11 as a shared success for the planet,” Launius writes.
However, he details in the book, that success and the road leading up to it were immediately more beneficial for the United States in its efforts to challenge the former Soviet Union and show the world its technological prowess.
The Space Race as a Cold War Battle
Events moved dizzyingly fast at the start of the space race, which came in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Less than 3 months after President John F. Kennedy was sworn into office on 20 January 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth on 12 April. Five days later, on 17 April, the United States launched its botched invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Then, on 21 April, Kennedy announced at a press conference, “If we can get to the Moon before the Russians, then we should.”
That statement, an example of the kind of detailed information included in Apollo’s Legacy, came more than a month before Kennedy’s 25 May historic address to Congress. That’s when Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
From there, it was off to the (space) races, with an enormous national commitment to overcome technological and other challenges to reach the Moon.
“Through Apollo, two American presidents came to appreciate the power of science and technology to increase confidence in the US government both abroad and at home,” writes Launius, who also previously served as associate director of collections and curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “Indeed, at a fundamental level both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson consciously used Apollo as a symbol of national excellence to further their objectives of enhancing the prestige of the United States throughout the 1960s.”
Not everybody was on board with the race to the Moon, Launius explains as he explores different perspectives and disagreements. Some, on both the political right and left, thought the effort was a “moondoggle.”
Launius writes that former president Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned that the Moon race “has diverted a disproportionate share of our brain-power and research facilities from equally significant problems, including education and automation.” And Congress challenged the enormous funding request for NASA.
Later, Launius writes, civil rights leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) protested the Apollo 11 launch to draw attention to the plight of poor people in the United States.
In an evocative scene, Launius details a meeting between Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, and other SCLC leaders with then NASA administrator Thomas Paine near the launch site the day before liftoff.
Drawing on Paine’s record of the incident, Launius writes that Paine “commented on how hard it was to apply NASA’s scientific and technological knowledge to the problems of society.” Launius quotes Paine as commenting, “The great technological advances of NASA were child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems with which [Abernathy] and his people were concerned.”
Launius writes that Paine asked the SCLC group to pray for the safety of the astronauts. Abernathy, an ordained minister, “responded with emotion that they would certainly pray for the safety and success of the astronauts, and that as Americans they were as proud of our space achievements as anybody in the country,” according to Paine.
Even after the Moon landings, a few people were not convinced that they happened, dismissing the landings as a hoax. Launius includes an interesting chapter about this.
Some people, including Launius’s paternal grandfather, simply thought the landings were technologically impossible.
The Legacy of Apollo
Apollo advanced technology, science, and people’s perspective of our home planet, among other things.
But, Launius asks, what is the real legacy of Apollo?
“Apollo had shown that virtually anything was possible,” he writes. “NASA’s engineers and scientists went to the Moon, one of the hardest tasks ever accomplished; might we be able to solve equally challenging problems in the future in a similar manner,” such as dealing with climate change, global population, water scarcity, or other issues?
Launius notes that these and other problems are largely political and social issues, with more limited potential for applying the sort of technical solutions that dominated the Apollo program. “Will they also be solvable using those lessons from Apollo? In other words, ‘If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we do X?’” he asks.
The author also wonders how much the race to the Moon was a product of a particular moment in time that motivated the public and convinced Congress to open the federal coffers. “Returning to the Moon certainly will not happen again anytime soon without a major realignment of rationales, needs, and priorities,” he writes.
With U.S. Vice President Mike Pence recently calling for the country to put an American astronaut back on the Moon in the next 5 years and with the Trump administration on 13 May requesting an extra $1.6 billion to help make that happen, time will tell whether the administration’s realignment will bear fruit.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer