By Dr. Binoy Kampmark
Anniversaries are occasions to distort records. The intoxicated recounting of the past faces a record in need of correction. Couples long married hide their differences before guests. Creases are covered; the make-up is applied generously. Defects become virtues, if, indeed they were ever there to begin with. In historical commemoration, the same is true. The moon landing anniversary his weekend was given a vigorous clean-up, with the Cold War finding a back seat when it was, in fact, the main driver.
The moon project was a fundamental political poke, soaked by competitive drives. The science was the instrumental ballast and has come to provide the heavy cosmetics to romanticise what is, at best, an effigy. When President John F. Kennedy proclaimed his wish for the United States to land a man on the moon and safely return him by the end of the 1960s, he was google-eyed by Cold War syndrome. The Soviets had been making advances in the space race, and paranoia at Red exploits was catching. A godless state had launched the nerve wracking Sputnik in 1957 and in 1961 put Yuri Gagarin into space.
While the Soviet Union is only mentioned once in his speech at Rice University, the competitive dig, the putdown, did come. Balance had to be restored. “Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were ‘made in the United States of America’ and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.” When he mentions being “behind for some time in manned flight”, there is little doubt who the bogeyman to beat is. We do not, he said reassuringly to his audience, “intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.”
Combating the Soviet Union, and communism more broadly, was simply one aspect of an aggrandised fist fight, to be fought on the ground, the seas, and in space. While it has become a charming conceit to suggest that JFK had intended to take the brakes off US commitments to stemming the Communist contagion in Vietnam, his administration saw a spike in the deployment of resources and advisors to the South. He had to be seen to be aggressive in all theatres of endeavour.
Domestically, selling the moon mission was not popular, and the post-landing effort to scrub away voices of opposition in the historical record has been vigorous. Space historian Roger Launius notesthe sentiment at the time.
“Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969.”
In 1964, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni published the despairing, blistering work that deserves a good dive into. The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race notes scientific opposition to the space program, at least in so far as it was not balanced. The space race, with its immortalisation of gadgets, glorified “rocket-powered jumps” and “extrovert activism”, had been “used as an escape”. The obsession with the moon delayed “facing ourselves, as Americans and citizens of the earth.”
Earthly concerns were considered more pressing. Civil rights leaders in the United States feared a loss of focus. While a million people gathered along Florida’s Space Coast to watch the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, some 500 protestors, mostly African-American and led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Centre. He had in tow a wooden wagon and two mules, a deliciously confronting contrast between the Saturn V rocket and the impecunious life.
“$12 a day to feed an astronaut, we could feed a child for $8,” read the protest signs.
NASA administrator Thomas Paine ventured out to meet Abernathy, subsequently recounting the concerns of the reverend.
“The money for the space program, he stated, should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.”
Behind the project lay other dark forces whose roles have been obscured by propagandists of a romantic lunar narrative. The amoral genius that was Wernher von Braun, given the moniker of Missileman, was an illustration that science might well lack an ethical compass, even if it worked. Tom Lehrer’s