Today marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s landing on the moon, the first time a human being set foot on a celestial body. The significance of the event in the story of humanity is such that it almost overshadows all the other achievements of the 1960s space race, and it has given some Americans the impression that they dominated it from start to finish. However they did no such thing. The first satellite, first man in space, first man to orbit the Earth, first woman in space, first spacewalk, first permanently crewed space station, first probe to land on the moon, first lunar rover, first probe to enter the atmosphere of another planet (Venus), and the first probe to land on another planet (Venus again) were all achievements of the Soviet Union. However the images of men walking on the lunar surface, and later the images of the lunar buggy being driven around on the ultimate joyride, are the ones that stick.
It was a time when the threat of Soviet domination loomed large, and the two superpowers felt the need to demonstrate to the world which society was more advanced. The spread of communism was causing panic in the west, and anything that made it a more attractive proposition had to be undermined. If a communist people could prove themselves technically advanced enough to put people in space, the western world had better make sure to match them. The Americans had shown their ability to catch up with the Soviets, but if they were to steal the lead then they were going to have to pull off a spectacular, and planting the stars and stripes on the moon was the perfect stunt.
Apollo was one of the most ambitious programs ever undertaken by the United States. Launching a manned spacecraft and lander beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with enough life support to last eight days required a rocket more advanced than anything ever devised before. Indeed to this day the Saturn V launcher has never been surpassed by any launch system in height, weight or power.
The technical spinoffs from Apollo are legion. Cooling suits provide comfort for people with certain medical conditions and workers in harsh environments. Kidney dialysis has been simplified thanks to Apollo’s waste treatment systems. Types of exercise equipment first developed to train astronauts are now used in physical therapy. Insulation materials for homes and food packaging can trace their origins to the need to protect Apollo’s astronauts and equipment from radiation and heat. Water filtration, freeze-drying food, hazardous gas detection, synergistic coatings used in laser manufacturing, flame resistant textiles, and a multitude of other innovations owe their existence to Apollo. The complexity of the task and the coordination of so many specialist teams led to the development of new management planning methods that are still in use in industry today.
Critics of space exploration sometimes bemoan the amount of resources spent on it, claiming that the money would be better spent on Earth feeding the poor and treating the sick. However this overlooks the fact that there are no cash registers in space. All the money is spent on the ground, and as well as creating jobs it leads to technical developments that spin off into all walks of life, making life better in a multitude of small ways that all add up. If the money were instead spent on social programs, it is doubtful that it would have as much of an impact. In any case, between six billion of us, it should be possible to work on more than one problem at once. Governments constantly work on ways to lift people out of poverty through international trade and promotion of democracy and the rule of law.
Some people question the need for manned spaceflight at all, saying that much of the scientific research could be more efficiently carried out by machines. The venerable Mars rovers are certainly simpler and easier to get to the red planet than any vehicles with a human driver, and there is no need for them to return. Humans are heavy, need all manner of life support systems and safety measures built around them, and need to be brought back safely. This all adds significantly to the cost and complexity of manned space flight compared to unmanned missions. However this criticism misses the point. The fact that manned spaceflight is difficult is part of the reason why we do it. It is a technological challenge, and in solving the problems associated with it we become better engineers and stimulate innovation that has benefits that go far beyond space exploration. There is also the value of inspiring future generations to enter careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). These skills are more important than ever, and human progress requires a steady supply of visionaries who are willing to apply their technical know-how to the greatest challenges of our time.
There is also the matter of where our long term destiny lies. Are we really doomed to live out the rest of human history on this single world when there is much more to explore out there?
NASA’s share of the US federal budget peaked in 1966 at 4.41 percent, and since then it has declined to less than half of 1 percent. By contrast, defense accounts for a whopping 18 percent. The defense industry is strategically placed in so many congressional districts that their lobbying power is enough to get event the most pointless and expensive boondoggles approved. If the level of resources that we now spend on the instruments of death and destruction, much of it unnecessary, were instead spent on NASA, the trail that was blazed by Apollo would not have gone cold.
In the 1960s it was assumed that the progress exemplified by the moon landings would have continued so that by the turn of the century people would be living permanently on the moon and have access to the rest of the solar system, a new era of human expansion. Instead we mark the forty-fifth anniversary of that one famous small step for a man as prisoners of our planet’s gravity while our resources are spent on much more dubious causes. Unless our priorities shift, it is difficult to see if this generation will get to bear witness to another moment of inspiration of the same magnitude as Neil Armstrong’s walk.