The anniversary of the moon landing may excite space-mad members of the human race, but far more earthy desires motivated the quest. Little is mentioned in current tributes of the overtly political dimension that propelled the extraordinary event. It was hard to ignore, writes Rita G. Koman in the 1994 winter issue of the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History that the space race “became part of the general arms race with the Soviets.” The historian Walter A. McDougall saw the entire space effort as nothing less than “a paramilitary operation in the Cold War”. The remarkably parochial aspect of the Cold War battle has tended to pass into the background, erased by a universal narrative of glorious human achievement.
President John F. Kennedy decided, after consulting the findings of the National Aeronautics and Space Council chaired by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, to “shift our efforts in space from low to high gear”. Early on in his Presidency, Kennedy had bragged that “this generation of Americans intends to be the ‘world’s leading spacefaring nation’.” All of this in the name of America’s quest for world leadership, which was seriously compromised by the technological feats of the Soviet Union.
The entire space program became organized around Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, a feat that would be attained by three phases: Project Mercury, comprising six missions into space; the intermediary Project Gemini; and the largest component, Apollo. NASA had received a series of bruising setbacks from their Soviet counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s. On the launch of Soviet satellites, historian Robert Dallek cites Vice President Johnson’s desperate question: “How long, how long, oh God, how long will it take us to catch up with the Russians’ two satellites?” Project Mercury was trumped by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin in April 1961. The fact that the first man in space was a Soviet Commie was hard to stomach.
Space, in fact, became the externalizing factor for the global war with the USSR and its allies, a frontier for future military engagement. In so doing, the obsession with space acted as a vent for failed social experiments at home, an ‘open door’ in the cosmos. It was far better to do what John Quincy Adams had warned America against: embark on quests in search of monsters to destroy. As Carl Dreher of The Nation (September 25, 1967) wrote, the country had been afflicted by a “social pathology” in its Cold War missions. Both the war in Vietnam and “the journey into space impair our ability to find solutions for the deterioration of American cities, and specifically for the problem of Negro disaffection”.
Despite such tensions, Dreher had to concede, given the sheer magical nature of the enterprise, that any proposed cuts to NASA’s relatively minute budget (relative, that is, to America’s war outlays in Indochina), should be opposed. The warriors of aerospace had to be defended, their gains in technology used. What was good for them, intoned Dreher, was good for the country. Thus was born that continuous tension: the relevance of space exploration vis-à-vis the problems of domestic crisis and atrophy.
The jitters of the space race also produced casualties for science as well. The sheer desperation of reaching the moon made NASA focus more on man-made flights rather than solid and consolidating scientific development. Safety was compromised in the name of reaching targets. The deaths of three astronauts in the flash fire of Apollo 2 on January 27, 1967 may well have been the outcome of such a skewed emphasis.
Any analysis of the moon landing must consider the entire gamut of factors. Technological achievements should not be neglected and the annals of human existence will continue to extol it. But one would be loth to ignore the competitive, even destructive spirit of this race, which saw powers militarize a frontier beyond earth while ignoring problems on earth. Not even this achievement in space could distract Americans long enough from pressing wars on earth.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com