26 June, 2019
There is no uncertainty about why U.S. President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, proposed to the U.S. Congress and the American public that the United States should send astronauts to the Moon “before this decade is out.” In a secretly recorded White House meeting in November 1962, Kennedy made clear that getting to the Moon was for him “in a sense a race… The Soviet Union has made this a test of the [U.S. and Soviet] systems… Everything we do ought to be tied to getting on the Moon ahead of the Soviets.”
The United States through Project Apollo was, of course, successful in sending two American astronauts to the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969 (the early morning of July 21 in Europe). But the Apollo 11 lunar landing by the time it happened had become much more than a milestone in the Cold War geopolitical competition between two superpowers. Rather, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon fulfilled the centuries-long dream of traveling to other worlds and united the peoples of the world in sharing a moment of cosmic discovery. The eminent U.S. historian Arthur Schlesinger, writing in 1999, suggested that “The one thing for which this century will be remembered 500 years from now was: This was the century when we began the exploration of space.” To Schlesinger, the Apollo 11 landing was the single most important event of the 20th century.
It is extremely doubtful that John Kennedy anticipated such a transcendent impact when he made his decision to go to the Moon; what he sought by that decision was to send a message of American power and leadership to the rest of the world. As he made that decision in 1961, Kennedywas dealing with an active threat to U.S. global leadership coming from Soviet space achievements, and his immediate intent was to counter that threat. As his science adviser, Jerome Wiesner of MIT, later said, Kennedy “became convinced that space was the symbol of the twentieth century.” His decision to go to the Moon was “made cold bloodedly. He thought it was good for the country.”
The reason the Apollo 11 mission is being celebrated, a half century after it happened, is that it became much more than just “good for the country.” More than half of the world’s population was aware through television and radio broadcasts of the first lunar landing as it happened. At least for a short time in the summer of 1969, there was a sense that “we” – all of humanity – had made the lunar journey. The Apollo 11 crew left behind on the Moon a plaque that read “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon… We came in peace for all mankind.” The sense that Apollo 11 was an achievement in pursuit of global harmony has persisted for fifty years, and it is why the world will pause this July to remember that once, a half century ago, we went to the Moon.
The Origins of Project Apollo
John Kennedy’s decision to race the Soviet Union to the Moon came in reaction to the April 12, 1961, Soviet launch of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Russia had been first to launch a satellite, Sputnik 1 in October 1957, and now it had beaten the United States as the first country to send a human to orbit the Earth. Kennedy was a very competitive individual. He was also a convinced Cold Warrior, believing that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a geopolitical contest for global leadership, and a president it was his responsibility to make sure that the United States prevailed in that contest. The stakes were high – both the continued willingness of many of countries in Europe and Asia to look to the United States for leadership and especially the allegiance to America of the newly independent countries in Africa and elsewhere, just shaking off their colonial past and deciding on their form of political and social organization. The worldwide acclaim for Gagarin’s mission demonstrated to Kennedy that space was a new frontier on which that contest was being waged, and he quickly decided that the United States should not remain in second place in space achievement. What he needed to know was how to leapfrog the Soviets to the leading position in space.
To get an answer to that question, in the aftermath of the Gagarin flight Kennedy asked his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, to organize a rapid review of U.S. efforts in space. Central to that review was Kennedy’s request, set out in an April 20 memorandum to Johnson, to identify “a space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” Within just over two weeks, Kennedy had his answer – go to the Moon!
A lunar landing was selected as the focus of an accelerated U.S. space effort, not because of the Moon’s inherent interest as an object for exploration, but because Kennedy’s space advisers judged that the United States had a better than 50 per cent chance of getting to the Moon (and back) before the Soviets. Key to Soviet success in launching the first satellite and the first human was a rocket more powerful than any operated by the United States. But U.S. experts, leading among them German émigré rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, advised the White House that the Soviet rocket was not powerful enough to launch a lunar landing mission. Both the Soviet Union and the United States would have to develop a new, more powerful booster to send people to the Moon, and in that rocket-building race, von Braun suggested, the United States had an “excellent” chance to be first.
The results of the space program review reached President Kennedy on May 8; on that same day, Kennedy welcomed U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard and his six Mercury colleagues to the White House. Three days earlier Shepard had made a 15-minute suborbital flight, becoming the first American in space; the enthusiastic reaction to his flight had reinforced Kennedy’s determination to move forward. In their May 8 report, Kennedy’s advisers recommended an across-the-board acceleration of the U.S. space effort, with a central feature being a lunar landing as a national goal. The international prestige flowing from such an accomplishment, Kennedy was told, would be “part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.”
Kennedy accepted his advisers’ recommendations. In his May 25 speech announcing his decision, he declared “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind… and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” The race to the Moon was on.
Winning the Race
As President. Kennedy committed the United States to going to the Moon, the Soviet Union had not made a similar decision. Indeed, the formal Soviet commitment to a lunar landing program did not come until August 1964, although preparations for such a program had begun earlier. The United States thus had an almost two-year head start in the Moon race.
It took advantage of that lead time. There was a massive, warlike but peaceful, mobilization of financial and human resources. By the end of 1962, the basic decisions of what systems would be developed – the huge Saturn V rocket, the three-person Apollo command and service spacecraft, and the two-person lunar excursion module – had been made, and rendezvous in lunar orbit chosen as the way to get to the Moon. Project Apollo was assigned the highest government priority, and the NASA budget was increased by 89 per cent after Kennedy’s speech and another 101 per cent the following year. By 1965, NASA’s budget was almost 5 per cent of all government spending. (It is less than 0.5 per cent today.) The NASA workforce doubled and contractors working on Apollo increased fourfold. Although the average age of the Apollo workforce was 27, the project’s leaders were an extremely able group, with experience in managing large-scale military and aeronautics developments.
Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” challenge set a deadline for Apollo that defined what hardware was needed, focused schedules, and motivated performance. After Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Apollo also became a memorial to a fallen young president. Even after a launch-pad fire killed three astronauts in January 1967, there was no thought given to abandoning the push to the Moon.
By contrast, the Soviet lunar program was beset by internal bureaucratic and personal rivalries, the lack of both adequate resources and centralized leadership, and the 1966 death during surgery of the charismatic Soviet “chief designer,” Sergei Korolev. Even so, the Russian program came close to rivaling Apollo. At the end of 1968, only a last minute Kremlin decision aborted a plan to send cosmonauts around the Moon, and before Apollo 11 was launched in July 1969 there were two failed attempts to test the massive N-1 booster, the Soviet equivalent of the Saturn V Moon rocket. The United States won the race to the Moon – but it was a race.
The possibility that the Soviet Union might be first to reach the Moon, even without landing, spurred NASA into making the bold decision to send the December Apollo 8 mission into lunar orbit at the end of 1968. The total success of that mission was key to being ready to land on the Moon before the end of 1969. The Apollo 8 crew also brought back the single most iconic image resulting from the Apollo program – the “Earthrise” photo of the blue Earth rising above the barren lunar landscape. Seeing the home planet from Moon orbit prompted the American poet Archibald MacLeish to write: “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers”.
That perception, that we all live on the Earth together, may be the most lasting legacy of Apollo. As Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who took the photograph, has frequently said in the years since, “we went to the Moon to discover the Earth.”
“One Giant Leap”
The worldwide reaction to the Apollo 8 success reminded U.S. leaders, if they needed reminding, that the first steps on the Moon a few months later would be celebrated as a global event. In addition, they were aware that by the summer of 1969 there would be a worldwide network of communications satellites in orbit, allowing real-time viewing of those historic first steps. Indeed, the satellite that would make that possible was put in service only 19 days before Neil Armstrong’s “one small step”; some half of the world’s population, more than 500 million people, were able to watch that step.
As NASA planned the symbolic activities for Apollo 11, one early decision was that what Neil Armstrong would say as he stepped on the Moon would not be scripted in advance; those words would be Armstrong’s personal choice. Until his death in 2012, Armstrong insisted that whatever his actual words as he stepped off the lunar module, he had intended to say “that’s one small step for a man.” What of a non-scientific character Armstrong and Aldrin would do in their just over two hours on the lunar surface was carefully debated at NASA’s top levels. The objective was to portray “the first lunar landing as an historic first step of all mankind that has been accomplished by the United States of America.” To achieve the “all mankind” part of this message, a plaque was designed to be attached to the part of the lunar landing module that would remain on the Moon; That plaque would show “the two hemispheres of the earth and the outlines of the continents, without national boundaries”; it would say “Here men from planet earth first set foot upon the moon. We came in peace for all mankind.” The sentiment was echoed in Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind” words as he stepped on the Moon.
To show that it was the United States which had reached the Moon, the astronauts would plant an American flag in the lunar soil “in such a way as to make it clear that the flag symbolized the fact that an effort by the American people reached the moon, not that the U.S. is ‘taking possession’ of the moon.” There was a White House suggestion that the U.S. national anthem be played after the flag was planted, but that idea was quickly rejected. Armstrong did take the time needed to snap a photograph of Aldrin saluting the American flag, and that photo, like Apollo 8’s “Earthrise,” has become a lasting icon of Apollo’s achievement.
“We did it”: a global celebration
The impact of the Apollo 11 landing was immediate, global, and positive. Even to today, most people who viewed or heard the first steps on the Moon as they happened can tell you where they were. Streets around the world were quiet as people crowded around television sets. By the next day, messages of congratulations poured in to the White House from leaders of every country with which the United States had diplomatic relations, and NASA was swamped with messages of praise from the general public. Newspapers around the world hailed the achievement in banner headlines. Two months after they returned to Earth, the White House sent the Apollo 11 crew on a 39-day, 24-country, 29-city world tour; throughout, they heard the message “we did it.” There was almost universal human identification with the Moon voyage, and admiration for the nation that had carried it out.
Between 1969 and 1972, there were six more voyages from the Earth to the Moon. On one mission, Apollo 13, a fuel tank explosion made a landing impossible and put the crew’s lives in jeopardy. The world held its collective breath until they were safely back on Earth. None of the other missions received the attention or acclaim given to Apollo 11, and the United States in 1970 cancelled the last two planned Apollo missions. As Apollo 17 left the Moon on December 14, 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon declared “this may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon.” Nixon was correct; it is now 47 years since the last humans left the Moon.
As the world celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 this summer, it is important to recognize the achievement for what is was- and what it was not. Apollo neither solved the national rivalries of the twentieth century by translating one transcendent moment into lasting harmony nor (at least so far) began the movement of humanity off of its home planet. Instead, by setting the lunar landing goal in 1961, President John F. Kennedy linked the Cold War politics of the moment with a centuries-long human dream of travel to the Moon, thereby making that dream reality. In doing so, he all but assured that when the lunar landing was accomplished, the reaction would be one of excitement and inspiration, and that the superpower rivalry that had fueled Apollo would be pushed to the background and the rightful U.S. pride in its achievement would be submerged in a global celebration. Apollo achieved John Kennedy’s goal of sending a message of U.S. exceptionalism and power to the world in a way that engaged, rather than threatened, others. He did not live to see Americans on the Moon, but it is certain that if he had been alive in 1969, he would have been very pleased to welcome Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins home to Earth.