Fifty years ago, the course of human history changed. The idea that people could leave this planet, travel to outer space, land on another surface, then return to Earth safely was only the domain of science fiction until July 20, 1969.
Arguably, it happened ahead of schedule — not the schedule President Kennedy laid out — but the pace of technology development schedule. The natural course of events and continuous improvements may have yielded the capacity to accomplish the lunar mission perhaps a decade or two later, maybe.
“Moore’s Law” holds that computing capability and resultant technology developments double every two years. Presently, it’s even faster. But when the goal of going to the moon was pursued in the 1960’s, the entire computing capacity in the vaunted Houston Mission Control room, for example, was roughly the equivalent of what we have in an iPhone today. For the mission control tasks and everything else it would take to launch Apollo, NASA did it with precision tools that are today’s technology equivalent of sledge hammers. The explorers and adventurers of 50 years ago accomplished this goal by brute force and determination.
The result of their effort was to dramatically multiply the pace of technology development since then. The capacity and urgency emerged to design lighter materials, electronic components to respond faster, and chemical propulsion to generate power at levels unimaginable, at substantially faster rates than Moore’s Law would naturally produce. The impact to all of us as citizens is huge — accessible commercial aviation to go anywhere, nearly anytime, information and communications systems small enough to put into your pocket and contact anyone anywhere on the globe in moments, and medical breakthroughs like heart pumps and valves that have drastically reduced the incidents of heart attacks since the 1960’s. This is just a random compendium of incredible applications that all have their origins in this national quest to access space and go to the moon.
Might these developments have happened without the catalyst? Possibly, but certainly not at the accelerated pace that has been achieved. Perhaps most important, it’s uncertain whether the United States would be the technology leader it is today without this national policy objective.
But at its core, all this happened because of fear.
In May 1961, Kennedy called a special session of Congress to announce the audacious goal that by the end of the 1960’s, the U.S. would be the first to send humans to the moon and return them safely. His urgent policy speech was just a few weeks after the Soviets successfully sent the first human to space and returned him to Earth. Yuri Gagarin spent less than two hours in space and orbited the planet once — but he was the first.
Less than four years earlier, the Soviet Union launched the beach ball sized Sputnik satellite to space. Both events were treated as harbingers, existential threats to the United States as we imagined the inconceivable horrors that the Soviets could rain down on us from space. To our national leaders and most Americans, this was a threat to be feared and countered promptly. Perhaps equally troubling, we were in a race we suddenly woke up to realize we were losing. And so the Space Race was born.
Having lit this fuse just months after he was inaugurated, Kennedy refined the theme and its purpose over the next year. By September 1962 at a speech in Rice University’s stadium, he defined the reasons to go to the moon that transcended the fear motive. Instead the emphasis of the speech was the desire to yield to the human quest for knowledge, describe the remarkable capabilities we would develop and the stunning possibilities we might come to understand to our great benefit. The entire tapestry of the oratory was laced with nautical references, definition of the quest as exploring a new ocean and discovering lands far beyond our own conjuring allusions of every notable exploration quest pursued over the course of human history.
He laid the groundwork for a reason why we should do this as a demonstration of American exceptionalism and why we were uniquely suited to the task because of our indomitable spirit. He never mentioned the Soviets. There was no utterances of fear mongering. It was all about doing extraordinary things to accomplish aspirations larger than ourselves. The U.S. policy was recrafted to be an economic development initiative to provide capacity and technology prowess.
Throughout the 1960’s space objectives took on new skeptics as political realities set in. The Vietnam War immersed us deeper in conflict, the civil rights movement created a social referendum on equal rights and an end to segregation, and a War on Poverty was declared to address the disparity of wealth, health care, education and employment opportunity across the nation. All the remedies had an expense and bore considerable cost to the nation. But each of these national challenges were cast in competition with nearly 5 percent of the budget spent on space.
The mythical notion that space exploration and going to moon were wildly popular in the United States of the 1960’s is a latter day version of “fake news.” At best, the majority view was that space was a fine objective as long as it didn’t take resources away from all the other imperatives At worst, some argued it was a complete waste of time and national treasure.
All these factors converged and contributed to the reality that a dozen men visited the moon, returned to Earth and then we stopped going. The debate today is why should we go back? We’ve been there, done that and got a dozen tee shirts. The debate should be more along the lines of what if we don’t go back?
Imagine if after Lewis and Clark explored the West we chose to stop going. Or what if President Jefferson simply decided it was too expensive to go west in light of all the other at pressures on the new republic. Perhaps California and everything in between would look a bit different.
What does this say about our chances today of going back? It was true then as it is now “we do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” Kennedy nailed it. It was never easy then, and surely isn’t easy now.
Mercifully, we don’t have the same sense of impending threat that motivated the 1961 goal to go to the moon. We do have the benefit of pursuing such a goal now with the advantage of vastly superior technology over the decades since, sparked by the catalyst of the Apollo era. But once again, we do have the impending prospect of losing our technology and economic edge.
If we don’t pursue aspirations that stretch our capacity to overcome limitations, obstacles and opposition to seek new opportunities and destinations for humans to explore we lose. To do so denies our human desire to learn.
Sean O’Keefe served as NASA administrator from 2001 to 2005. O’Keefe is also a professor of public administration at the Syracuse University Maxwell School.