As we consider the 50th anniversary of humans setting foot on the Moon back in 1969, rather than re-living that dramatic experience moment by moment, let’s instead try to delve into three related questions that might illuminate the deepest significance of this epic event. First, what significance did the Moon landing have in 1969? What does it have now? And the most difficult, speculative, and thought-expanding question of all, what will it mean in the future, say a century from now, in 2119?
The Significance of the Apollo 11 Mission in 1969
On July 20, 1969, when a world audience of some 600 million watched or listened to the progress of the Apollo 11 mission, what was its significance? Certainly, it was a great leap for mankind, and for science, but it also had very earthly political significance. In fact, it was very much a product of the constantly shifting balance of power on the Earth, an extension of our geopolitics to the Moon.
The great geopolitical confrontation of the time, of course, was the Cold War, between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. The Cold War itself was global, a stand-off on land; at sea; in the sky; under the sea; and even under the polar icecap, traversed by submarines. And, this competition extended—inevitably—to space.
The stakes were ultimate, as each adversary bloc saw the space race as not just a matter of prestige, but as a way to lay claim on the future for its values, its ideology, and its way of life. As the author Deborah Cadbury states in her marvelous book, Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space, “the race to the moon became a defining part of the struggle for global supremacy.”
And this was not hidden, not secret or merely implicit, but a reality out in the open. To get a snapshot of what the Apollo 11 landing meant then, I did a precise surgical probe—I went to the digitized files of my hometown newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, to find what it had to say on that memorable day! That day, the front page bore the huge headline, “The Moon is Red, White and Blue.”
Nor had the geopolitical competition only recently intruded into space. It was there from the start. A key moment came on October 4, 1957, when the Soviets seemed to leap forward in the race with the launch of Sputnik, their orbiting satellite. The impact on America was catalytic, as the United States began its determination to ramp up technology and science to not be left in the dust. Some called it a “technological Pearl Harbor,” demanding an energetic response. U.S. spending on research soared, universities expanded, and I will wager that a good number of people listening to this program had their careers shaped by the investments made as a result.
But then, only two years later in 1959, the Soviet Union touched the Moon first. On September 14, 1959, the Soviets deliberately crashed an unmanned spacecraft into the Moon’s surface. This was the Luna 2. The designer of Luna 2 was the genius behind the Soviet advance, the Russian engineer Sergei Korolev. His difficult life followed the turmoil-filled trajectory of the Soviet Union under Stalin. In 1938, Korolev had been arrested by the Soviet secret police, falsely accused of belonging to a counter-revolutionary organization and engaging in sabotage. He was imprisoned in the brutal gulag, until he was recalled to the historic mission of making space itself Soviet.
In addition to scientific equipment and sensors on the Luna 2, the 390-pound craft carried a special cargo of geopolitical significance. These were medallions that flew everywhere after the ship crashed, settling onto the Moon’s surface. Each one of them was emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, the communist symbol of the Soviet Union. Symbolically, this was a way of claiming priority and asserting its role. These medallions are still there today, decades after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Domestically, this triumph positioned the Soviet state as the champion of global science, vanguard of the future. As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev remembered, “Of course, we tried to derive the greatest political advantage from the fact that we were the first to launch our rockets into space. We wanted to exert pressure on the American militarists.” Then, to drive the point home, the Soviets put the first man into space in 1961, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and in 1963, the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova.
But President John F. Kennedy responded by redefining the goal. Now, the real prize would be sending men to the Moon and returning them safely to Earth. With a keen sense for the power of images, Kennedy charted a new course. The consequences are discussed in another book I would urgently recommend, by the brilliant diplomatic historian Walter McDougall. His book is entitled …the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, and it won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for History.
As McDougall points out, “the Apollo program was at the time the greatest open-ended peacetime commitment by Congress in history.” He argues that American society was reshaped as a result, entering a new realm of technocracy. And this was true not only in regard to the space race, but in all dimensions of national policy. McDougall puts it this way: the American administrations of Kennedy and Johnson employed “induced technological revolution, followed hard by government control of research, education, economic fine-tuning, and social welfare in all its manifestations. Foreign political and domestic social challenges, it was believed, were equally susceptible to the technological and managerial fix… qualitative problems solved with quantitative methods.”
With prestige at stake, Kennedy set about the task of winning the space race with great intensity. At the White House, Kennedy demanded of his advisors: “Is there any place we can catch them? What can we do? Can we go around the Moon before them? Can we put a man on the Moon before them? … Can we leapfrog them?”
His vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, stressed this point even more bluntly: “One can predict with confidence that failure to master space means being second-best in the crucial arena of our Cold War world. In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”
Not everyone agreed. Domestic critics denounced the vast expense of what they called “space crap,” and they coined the word “moon-doggle” to sharpen their derision.
The expectations fostered by the sight of American astronauts bestriding the Moon were vast. In the same edition, carrying the news of the Moon landing, my hometown newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, carried another article that announced, “Lunar Colony Could Be Next.” To state the obvious, that did not happen. In all, 12 Americans on six Apollo missions walked on the Moon from 1969 to 1972, or rode about on a Moon rover on the last missions. The final mission was Apollo 17 in 1972. Since then, no humans have left the orbit of the Earth.
The Soviets never managed to make their new lunar rocket perform, and they canceled the program in 1974. Historian Walter McDougall notes an irony. Setting that very dramatic goal of putting astronauts on the Moon and then returning them safely, he writes, “encouraged Congress and the nation to believe that Apollo was the space program.” After the Moon landing had been achieved, and the Cold War prestige happened as promised, the urgency just ebbed away in the years that followed.
The Significance of the Apollo 11 Mission Today
But what of today? What does Apollo 11 mean now? It takes on renewed significance, with some observers arguing that we are seeing a new, more complex space race, with more actors, new and old.
In the United States, a new Space Force has been proposed, in part as a response to the growing threat of anti-satellite weaponry. The U.S. hurries to ready new domestic production of rocket engines after nearly two decades of relying on Russian engines, as the American-Russian relationship has grown more fraught in the past years.
Add to this a striking new factor: the ambitions of private companies to plunge into space flight. Commercial ventures have stepped up. Thus, in 2012, the California company SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, for the first time launched rockets carrying supplies to the International Space Station. The chief of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, founded a rocket company in 2000 named Blue Origin. In 2019, he unveiled plans for a prototype lunar lander, and beyond this, he envisions a future when humans will construct colonies as floating homes in outer space. Other entrepreneurs have different goals. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic envisions space tourism in the near future.
Actually, this factor of private enterprise is not new, but rather a return to earlier precedents in the history of discovery. In previous ages, companies like the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company sought profit through venturing out into the world. Christopher Columbus had enrolled private investors. The brutal conquistadors of Latin America carved out empires, with royal sanction, but as military entrepreneurs. So this aspect is in fact a reversion to earlier patterns.
A new dynamic competitor is China, which has steadily ramped up its space launches year by year, ahead of Russia’s record for 2017, second only to the United States. Then, in 2018, China exceeded all other countries in number of rockets launched into orbit. In 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space, becoming the third nation to send its own into space.
The China National Space Administration has articulated ambitious goals, and has started to meet them. On January 3, 2019, in a historic first, it landed the rover Yutu 2 (meaning “Jade Rabbit 2”) on the so-called dark side of the Moon. Further plans include landing a rover on Mars by 2020, and putting astronauts on the Moon by the mid-2020s.
China is setting a fast pace, but experts also observe an Asian space race unfolding. In 2013, India launched a spacecraft, the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission. In 2019, its aim was to launch a lunar lander. South Korea advanced its rocket launch tests. Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency chose Toyota to create the ultimate lunar rover, by 2029. This rover is to be a huge vehicle, with pressurized cabins, solar panels to tap energy, essentially a lunar SUV.
The United States has its own plans for returning to the Moon. These plans are not meant to be a repetition of Apollo 11, but instead are aimed toward gaining experience in more durably moving into, and living in, the alien environment of the Moon.
In all this bustling activity of different countries and private companies, a key point is emerging. These advances are not just about the Moon. Rather, Moon aspirations have a lot to do with Mars aspirations, and even beyond. In fact, the Moon is now positioned to be a testing ground for a variety of technologies that will take us even further afield in the solar system and, perhaps, someday beyond.
We will witness how this all affects our current time period, as geopolitics steers space policy.
And what of the last, reckless, and totally unverifiable question: What will the future significance be, say in 2119, a century from now?
In history, the perspective of distance can offer clarity. I would predict that in the centuries to come, that first step onto the Moon will be remembered—even more than now—as an irreducible marker of human achievement. With the passing of time, the particular details of the Cold War will likely fade in collective memory, but the milestone of entering a new environment will become more prominent in our shared human psychology. I think the psychological impact to our worldview is most significant… in fact, stepping onto another sphere actually moves us from a worldview to a worldsview, in the plural.
In his political history of the space age, Walter McDougall asserted that the only proper precedent for the human move into space was the emergence, 360 million years ago, of the creature during the Devonian age. This was an ancient fish that used its strong fins as legs, moving from the primordial seas to begin to slowly walk across the land, an entirely new environment.
What remains to be seen is whether that milestone will be a standing reproach to humans who did not move beyond the Earth ever again, or whether perhaps a century from now crowds of Moon-born humans will gather at the spot where Apollo 11 touched down, to mark this as a beginning of bolder ventures that still continue.
I personally think the latter scenario is likelier. As I argue in my own series of lectures on the history of explorers for the Great Courses, in human history, epic journeys have provoked more journeys; so, it would be a break with long-standing precedent for the human race to stay home. Obviously, the technologies that might allow humans to move much farther to other planets are only being imagined, at present.
Finally, one other thing is likely to be the case: Just as geopolitics helped to define the meaning of Apollo 11 in 1969, and continues to play a role now, the odds are good that these very human patterns of politics will have an effect in 2119, too. Unless there are still greater surprises in store, for better or worse. History, after all, is itself a realm of surprises.