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Thirty Years since Apollo 11

by Jonathan Coopersmith on Jul 14, 1999

Jonathan Coopersmith

Thirty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon, humanity’s first steps on another planetary body. Ten more Americans followed in the footsteps of Apollo 11 before the flights halted.

No one has been back since.

The success of Apollo and subsequent lack of action demonstrate the importance of politics and economics in shaping technological advances. Americans walked on the Moon because President John F. Kennedy and Congress decided that this goal warranted spending tens of billions of dollars. Americans stopped walking on the Moon because later presidents and congresses decided there were better uses for tax dollars.

Apollo was a political triumph for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the United States. Difficult as it is for anyone under 30 to believe, the early 1960s saw the United States and the then Soviet Union fiercely engaged in the Space Race as part of the Cold War. Each nation hailed its space “firsts” as proof of the superiority of its social and economic system.

Apollo was also a stunning technological accomplishment. NASA moved in eight years from launching a man on a short suborbital hop to landing two men on the Moon and safely bringing them back to earth. Hundreds of thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and administrators justly took pride in this impressive demonstration of American technology.

While the right political decision for the 1960s, the Apollo project failed to lay the foundation for a sustained space program. Extraordinarily costly — a $100 billion price tag in today’s dollars — Apollo owed its existence to the Cold War. Only the political goal of beating the Russians enabled NASA to consume nearly a fifth of the nation’s scientific and technological resources.

By contrast, NASA’s budget now is only $13 billion, less than 1 percent of federal spending. NASA’S elaborate plans for a space station and manned bases on the Moon and Mars long remained on the drawing board. Today, a space station is finally under construction, but plans for further human exploration remain on paper, in part because space exploitation and exploration are both expensive and dangerous. Launching one pound into earth orbit costs up to $10,000, and NASA spends more than $250 million for every shuttle mission.

Nor have launches displayed the desired safety and reliability. In the last year, six American rockets, three military and three commercial, have failed, with a loss of more than $3 billion. Until costs are sharply reduced and reliability increases, access to space will remain limited.

John Glenn’s return to space and NASA’s Mars missions demonstrate that interest in space exploration has never died. What is changing now is the economic and political justification. Despite the costs, business is increasingly entering space in search of profits. In the last few years, the value of new commercial satellites has exceeded the value of government satellites for the first time. International relations are again a major factor in launching people into space, but the new spirit of the International Space Station is cooperation, not competition.

To space advocates, the 30 years since Apollo 11 were years of frustration and opportunities lost caused by a short-sighted government that did not boldly want to go where nobody had gone before. They are wrong. Apollo was created by the unique conditions of the Cold War. The fading of the Cold War meant much less interest and funding for space.

The greatest legacy of Apollo lies ahead. And ironically its Cold War origins will be long forgotten after space has become the domain for business and global cooperation.

Jonathan Coopersmith is associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A & M University.