The politics and ethics of the moon landing



'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.' — Tom Lehrer, 'Wernher von Braun', 1967.

When President John F. Kennedy proclaimed his urgent wish for the United States to land a man on the moon and safely return him by the end of the 1960s before a gathering at Rice University, he was less interested in the science than the purpose. A godless Soviet Union had launched Sputnik in 1957. Alarmingly, it put Yuri Gagarin into space some four years later. The US populace was panicked.

Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks near the lunar module during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (NASA file photo)The need to restore the balance was emphasised. '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.'

Why, then, go to the moon? To this, the US president was rhetorical: Why, for instance, climb the highest mountain or fly the Atlantic? 'Why does Rice play Texas?' The aim was clear: do the hard thing, rather than the necessarily good, ethical or 'easy' thing. Going to the moon would 'organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too'.

The rosily romantic reminiscences that have flooded television screens ignore a fabulous propaganda exercise that began in the immediate aftermath of July 1969. A moon landing amnesia was imposed. In the US, selling the moon mission through the 1960s proved unpopular, with polls showing a majority disapproving of the venture. The scepticism and doubts about the merits of a moon landing were marshalled with much industry in a work that has been all but forgotten.

In 1964, The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race by sociologist Amitai Etzioni noted the misgivings of the scientific fraternity to the space program. The effort risked losing perspective and balance. An 'extrovert activism' had taken old, one obsessed with gadgets, 'rocket-powered jumps' and escapism. In terms of budgetary expenditure, this showed, with NASA spending $28 billion between 1960 and 1973.

Such escapism was also noted by leaders of the civil rights movement. The rocket launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969 is a tale of two narratives. The colourful, sprightly account of millions watching in awe contends with a more sombre, less impressed view. One stands out: a protest by some 500 protestors led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Centre a few days prior to the launch. The protestors were sporting a wooden wagon and two mules, a true technological riposte. For them, food on the table was better than feeding astronauts to go into space 'to look at rocks'.

NASA administrator Thomas Paine would recount the concerns of the reverend after a meeting with the protesters. '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.'


"The moon risks becoming another field of human contestation and appropriation, more headache than revelation."


There was also a troubling ethical matter at the centre of the Apollo project. Behind the rockets lay a military inspiration. The former Nazi scientist, Wernher von Braun, was the face of the US rocket project. Given the title of Missileman by the press, his team developed the first US ballistic missile capable of propelling a nuclear warhead to distances of 250 miles. Then came the Jupiter-C in 1958, which shot the first US satellite, Explorer 1, into space. The vital Saturn V rocket that formed the basis of the moon missions was created while von Braun was director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre.

A decade before, von Braun was a target of Operation Paperclip, an effort on the part of the Allies to hoover German science expertise for future weapons and civilian projects in the aftermath of the Second World War. It served not merely to ensure a gathering of the best and brightest from the former Third Reich, but a whitewashing of mass industrialised killing. Von Braun had overseen the fearsome V-2 rocket program, an unabashed weapon of terror built by slave labour used against civilians during the war. 'Like the widows and cripples in old London town,' satirised Tom Lehrer, 'Who owe their large pension to Wernher von Braun.'

Entzioni's point on technological escapism when revisiting the moon landing remains apposite. Future space exploration remains a dreamy prospect, but one encouraged by the likes of Michael Collins, who orbited 60 nautical miles above the lunar surface as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent time on the moon. Mars remains, for Collins, feasible if dangerous — like the Apollo mission, a 'daisy chain' of events that might have gone wrong but did not. 

In the meantime, the moon remains an object of curiosity. NASA is determined to return humans to its South Pole via its Artemis program by 2024. China's Chang'e-4 landed on the far side of the moon on 3 January. More lunar missions are planned in anticipation of establishing a lunar base. India has just taken similar lunar steps, launching the Chandrayaan-2 in a bid to reach the far side by late August. The risks of such ventures are clear: the moon risks becoming another field of human contestation and appropriation, more headache than revelation.

Technological sophistication does not suggest ethical or principled maturity; it implies a form of arrested development, an all-too-human vanity of vanities. Terrestrial problems continue to bite more pressingly than ever, with earth becoming a victim of human folly. Far easier to go to the moon again, it seems in some circles, than confront that fact.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks near the lunar module during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (NASA file photo)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, moon landing, Russia, Cold War



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Binoy mentions Operation Paperclip, whereby after WW2 the USA got German scientist (about 1,600) like Wernher von Braun to assist their scientific efforts. However he fails to mention The Soviet Alsos whereby the USSR secret police, the NKVD, sent teams into Germany to locate and deport scientists (about 2,200) who could assist their atomic bomb project. Binoy then suggests the US recruitment of German scientists was somehow “whitewashing of mass industrialised killing”. Nonsense! The USA, UK and USSR had all agreed at Tehran (1943), Yalta (1945) and Potsdam (1945) to punish those responsible for war crimes which resulted in the Nuremberg Trials. He then questions the ethics of spending $28 billion instead of feeding the hungry as suggested by civil rights leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy. But Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation was introduced in the 1960s specifically to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. It has cost trillions of dollars and succeeded only in producing a permanent underclass totally dependent on government handouts. Said black economist Walter Williams, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, and what the harshest racism couldn’t do. And that is to destroy the black family.”

Ross Howard | 23 July 2019  

An interesting contrast Binoy. National ambition and vision versus social welfare. Crime and Punishment. At least Germany did not suffer the fate of Hiroshoma and Nagasaki. McNamara made the point in his DVD "The Fog of War" that had the allies lost WW2, The USA would have been prosecuted for war crimes rather than Germany and Japan. To the victor go the spoils. Rev Abernathy also had a valid point to make about social welfare of the poor. That very point is resisted by the LNP here in Australia this very day. The dole has not gone up in 20 years and the homeless get mere lip service from Politicians. Manus and Nauru are cornerstones of the re election platforms of the LNP but in reality they are an ideological smokescreen. Meanwhile our politicians race to sell off our valuable infrastructure and resources to a trading partner that vilifies democracy and hires hoodlums to thrash its citizens into silence and docile obedience. So it always becomes a question of priorities as to which strategy will win the most popularity, and inevitably that will never be social welfare. "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong." William Boetcker.

Francis Armstrong | 24 July 2019  

Things can take a long time to bear fruit. The effectuation of Apollo 11 started well before Reverend Abernethy’s charge that the US government was robbing Peter to pay Paul by redirecting taxes from welfare to NASA (or, by criticising, if he had lived in an alternative-universe, shades of the ALP’s campaign against negative gearing last federal election, the giving of research-oriented tax breaks to private consortia working to access Space for the faith-possibility of increasing GDP). The effectuation began when a Ligurian entrepreneur baptised Cristoffa Corombo discovered a New World in which unused wealth could be redeployed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, where initial narrow self-interest bloomed into the greater good of the broker of international stability today being a democracy comfortably similar to us in Australia, not some culturally obscure alien potentate. Whether such things as colonisation and the Anglicisation of perfectly pronounceable foreign names are dodgy or not, some European would eventually have touched foot in the ‘Americas’ and someone would eventually have broken into Space. So, what’s there to quibble with except, perhaps, that the nationalism of ‘Columbia’ given to the 1969 command module could have been accommodated within a more representative on-behalf-of-mankind ‘Columbus’?

roy chen yee | 26 July 2019  

Roy, interesting comment about the use of the spellings and translations of Christopher Columbus' surname. Columbus' surname has been used to name many cities and provinces in the Americas - and according to Wikipaedia, "Columbia" is a "historical female national personification of the United States of America, and a poetic name for the Americas". Unfortunately, the Spanish version of the word was claimed first to name the country of Colombia. And so the Yanks instead decided to hijack the name "America (United States of)" - instead of more accurately describing their territory as "The United States of the mid-section of North America." Perhaps their forefathers envisioned an imperialist future where all of the Americas would be united under one rule. Many Americans certainly see Australia as a further western extension of their own wild west frontier territory.

AURELIUS | 05 August 2019  

As someone who grew up (like everyone else) mired in post-moon landing, pro-space propaganda, I’m delighted to see this counterpoint - and that Tom Lehrer is still quoted on this. You might be interested to know that, in the files he recently uploaded for the public domain, there are the lyrics to a song which he professes to have performed on ‘That Was the Week that Was’ in 1965, titled ‘(We’re Gonna Put) A Man on the Moon’, peppered with such scathing quips as “But dont complain of empty rockets or empty pantries / think of all those sexy rockets sitting in their gantries,” and “If we could spare the money, perhaps we could find the answer / to why so many people die of heart disease and cancer / but heck, they’re GLAD to go / it’s worth it just to know / that the money will put a man on the moon!” That’s up there with ‘Whitey on the Moon’: what a gem!

RKD | 25 November 2020  

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