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The politics and ethics of the moon landing

  • 23 July 2019


'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.

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