The “one small step” on the dusty surface of the moon that Neil Armstrong memorably took on July 20, 1969 is often cast as a story of romance and discovery.
But the space program wasn’t really about that, at least not in the beginning. Whatever the heroism and acumen of Neil Armstrong, who died on the weekend at 82, reaching the moon wasn’t about science, exploration or the betterment of mankind. Its aims were less noble.
The space program was a manifestation of the superpower rivalry at the height of the Cold War. It was a tale of competition, gamesmanship and national interest, in which the United States struggled to reassert itself amid the startling advances in space made by the Soviet Union.
Indeed, in its most earthy terms, going to the moon was about besting the Russians and restoring America’s pride, which had been badly damaged when the Soviets sent Sputnik into space in 1957. No wonder it was called “the space race.”
And so, in 1961, John F. Kennedy promised the moon, quite literally. In 1969, Neil Armstrong fulfilled it, quite dramatically. Between the commitment and the conquest was a staggering story of daring, genius, courage, tragedy and treasure. It was also story of unprecedented ambition.
Going to the moon would evoke in America the same spirit that had mapped the oceans and built skyscrapers. It was bigger than building the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal, the transcontinental railways or the Interstate Highway System. It would cost lives (three astronauts burned to death on a launch pad in 1967,) it would drive industrial innovation (rockets, lunar vehicles, communications) and it would cost the earth: some $25-billion (U.S.), or $151-billion in 2010 dollars. According to scholar John M. Logsdon, it was the largest peacetime public project in U.S. history.
On May 25, 1961, after four months as president, Mr. Kennedy made his historic declaration to a joint session of Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” It was, on the face of it, a breathtaking undertaking for a country with no manned space program weeks after the triumphant Soviets sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit.
No matter. “I believe we should go to the moon,” said JFK. Personally, much as he spoke of the challenges of “the New Frontier”, he had no personal interest in space. He wanted “a space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” He also wanted a major victory in what he called “the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.”
This was consistent with candidate Kennedy’s view in 1960, that the United States under Dwight Eisenhower had suffered a loss of national prestige. To Mr. Kennedy, going to the moon, like establishing the Peace Corps, was recovering national pride by doing impossible things.
“We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …,” he declared. Space would be a great national project at a time America desperately needed one.
As much as the president saw the moon as an instrument of foreign policy and national security, by 1963 he saw it as field of peace, collaboration and national achievement. Thinking less now about winning the Cold War than ending it, he hoped the Russians would agree to a joint space program.
By 1969, when Mr. Armstrong pronounced his “giant leap for mankind,” a program founded in insecurity had become celebrating humanity. Kennedy would have cheered.
Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, is writing a book on two momentous days in the presidency of John F. Kennedy.