Why Did We Go to the Moon?

Apollo's lasting legacy, reexamined


The television image was grainy, blurred, starkly black-and-white. For well over 20 years, commercial stations had been broadcasting transmissions of better quality. But the astonishing thing, on that July night in 1969, was that the transmission was taking place at all. It was coming live from the moon, from a miniature TV camera that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had set up near their spacecraft. And around the world, hundreds of millions of people watched as these astronauts moonwalked with a bouncing gait, collected samples of soil and rock, and unfurled a wire-stiffened American flag.

When they splashed down in the Pacific four days later, President Nixon himself was aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet to meet them. "The greatest week in the history of the world since the creation" was how Nixon described their eight-day mission. Yet there was a curious sense of anticlimax about it all. The Apollo moon-landing program had gestated much earlier in the decade, long before Vietnam, campus unrest, and inner-city riots captured the national attention. Already, in 1969, NASA's budget was on a steep downward slide. Within little more than a year of that lunar landing, NASA Administrator Robert Frosch would announce that there would be no more moon landings beyond those already planned. The last such flight went there in December 1972, and then the moon returned to the unvisited stillness in which it had existed for four and half billion years.

Today, 20 years later, it is possible to weigh and assess Apollo's significance. The passions and enthusiasms of those times have faded. But that fading means that Apollo can be put in perspective, reduced from its larger-than-life character, to be understood as one among many major policy initiatives that marked the 1960s.

Why did we go to the moon? Why did this effort emerge so strongly under President Kennedy, with the space program being more clearly associated with his administration than with any other before or since? What was it about that particular moment in history, with Kennedy in the White House, that would lead the nation to embrace what had long been a metaphor for the impossible and out-of-reach? And in the words of the poet Robert Southey, "What good came of it, at last?"

The answers, at least in outline, are clear. Apollo was a response to exaggerated perceptions of the Soviet threat and exaggerated hopes for technology. It was set forth in deliberate contrast to the measured caution of President Eisenhower. It came forward as a dramatic demonstration of Kennedy's activism, of the view that government action could seize the future. Its legacy, finally, would be a few brief moments as an adventure of the human spirit—and a large space-program bureaucracy that would demand successfully to be fed, down to the present day.

Above all, Apollo stands out as emblematic of the contrast between Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Ike had led the British and U.S. combined armies in World War II; he knew America's strength from the most sweeping of vantage points. And just as a great army, once set in motion, does not readily turn in its course, so Eisenhower maintained a consistent set of policies throughout a succession of crises. Kennedy, by contrast, had never commanded anything larger than a PT boat, a small and highly maneuverable naval craft. He saw the nation from the vantage point of a PT boat skipper and believed he could steer it in new directions with sharp turns to the wheel of the ship of state. Ike, when presented with an explicit request to proceed with Apollo, rejected it with disdain. Kennedy embraced it before a joint session of Congress, barely four months after his inaugural.

Eisenhower was the last president to believe in limited government. Balancing the budget was his goal, and he met or nearly met it except for the recession year of 1959. Eisenhower resisted the Keynesian prescription to prime the pump with government spending, believing that the country would grow out of that recession in a natural way. It did, and Ike left as his legacy an inflation rate of little more than 1 percent per year.

In foreign policy, Ike particularly insisted on holding to a steady course. He had mopped up the Korean War during the first months of his administration and thereafter steadily resisted opportunities to involve the United States in a new conflict. In 1954 the French faced defeat at the hands of the Communists in Indochina, led by Ho Chi Minh. America was deeply involved, supplying the French with money and equipment. As their position crumbled, Ike faced strong demands to deal with Indochina as the linchpin in a worldwide struggle against communism and to intervene with force. He refused. And as the 1950s brought other crises—the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, a joint British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, a Soviet threat to seize West Berlin during 1958 and 1959—Ike kept cool, relying on diplomacy to settle each conflict or to keep it from escalating.

This same cool marked his response to a stunning succession of Soviet space successes, beginning with the first Sputnik in October 1957. It was shocking enough that the Russians had beaten us into space; even more startling was the weight of this Sputnik: 184 pounds, eight times the heft of America's planned Vanguard satellites. Then a month later the Soviets dropped the other shoe, launching the 1,120-pound Sputnik II with a dog on board. "The time has come," vowed Sen. Styles Bridges, a leading conservative, "to be less concerned with the depth of pile on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tailfin on the new car, and to be more prepared to shed blood, sweat and tears." Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the majority leader, was more apocalyptic: "How long, how long, oh God, how long will it take us to catch up with Russia's two satellites?"

Eisenhower refused to panic. As a military leader, he was well equipped to assess the threat. The Sputniks demonstrated that the Soviets had missiles that could launch hydrogen bombs against our cities; that was reason for concern. But our own missile programs were proceeding apace, with long-range rockets already in flight test. America was strong, the armed forces capable of defending the nation. Three days after the launch of Sputnik II he held a televised news conference and displayed a missile nose cone that had survived a flight over a range of 1,500 miles. Sputnik, he said, "does not rouse my apprehension, not one iota."

He would hold to that course during the subsequent three years, as the Soviets continued to pull off spectaculars: a 3,000-pound satellite in 1958, a spacecraft sent into interplanetary space in early 1959, then dramatic unmanned shots at the moon that returned the first photos of its unseen far side, followed in 1960 by launches that carried dogs and clearly foreshadowed the orbiting of a cosmonaut. Through it all, Ike stood by a policy he had set back in the fall of 1957: We would launch satellites for suitable military or scientific reasons, he insisted; but we would not be panicked into a space race or into pursuit of elaborate manned missions merely to "catch up with the Russians."

Indeed, by 1960—with Ike still in the White House—the U.S. space program already featured nearly all the principal activities that occupy it today. We were launching satellites with the aid of the Air Force's Thor and Atlas rockets, and the even larger Titan was under development. Nearly 30 years later, descendants of these missiles are still boosting spacecraft into orbit. In 1960 we were pioneering the important field of satellite communications, launching the Army's Courier satellite as well as the experimental Echo I of Bell Labs.

Also in 1960, the Navy launched its first Transit navigational satellite. We also launched the first weather satellite, Tiros I, opening up the immensely fruitful application of spacecraft to meteorology and earth observation. In that year we also laid the groundwork for the planetary program, launching Pioneer V, which communicated to earth by a radio link from a distance of more than 22 million miles.

The Discoverer XIII demonstrated the successful orbiting of a satellite and the safe return to earth of a protected capsule. Developed by the Air Force starting in 1955, and with close involvement by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Discoverers were out to discover, of course, the Soviets' military secrets. They carried cameras and other equipment, returning the film in those capsules. The success of Discoverer XIII in 1960 opened the way to satellite reconnaissance. It also was the first demonstration of what would soon become a familiar sight to TV viewers: a returning space capsule gently swaying below a large red-and-white-striped parachute, slowly descending to the ocean to be recovered.

Meanwhile, NASA's man-in-space program was well under way. Ike had approved Project Mercury, which had the goal of sending individual astronauts into orbit on brief flights, late in The following April, amid a blare of publicity, the first group of seven astronauts met the news reporters. And with Mercury coming along, it was none too soon for NASA's advanced planners to begin thinking about the next step.

At NASA headquarters, a Steering Committee for Manned Space Flight looked at space stations and orbiting space laboratories but decided that they had to set their sights higher. Nothing less would do than to send men to the moon. As the committee chairman put it, "A primary reason for this choice was the fact that it represented a true end objective which was self-justifying and did not have to be supported on the basis that it led to a subsequently more useful end." The goal of a moon landing would call forth a host of new rockets and spacecraft, which would find uses in earth orbit as well. There was no such clear and well-focused goal short of the moon itself. By the summer of NASA's leaders had the moon clearly in their view.

The key to such a project would be powerful new rocket motors. As early as 1958, the Air Force had started developing an engine with 1.5 million pounds of thrust. NASA soon took over responsibility for it and had the earliest version running on a test stand in March 1959. A cluster of such engines would propel the moon rocket. For the rocket's upper stages, NASA planners turned to a new, highly energetic fuel, liquid hydrogen, and soon had a hydrogen-fueled engine with 200,000 pounds of thrust in development. At nearly the same time, NASA managers were inviting aerospace firms to prepare designs for a manned spacecraft that would carry astronauts to the moon. By late 1960, NASA needed only one more thing to proceed with a moon-landing program: presidential approval.

They didn't get it. The question came up at a December 1960 cabinet meeting, and Eisenhower was strongly opposed. NASA's plan would cost up to $38 billion—$350 billion in today's economy. One of the meeting participants compared such a venture to Columbus's voyage. Ike replied that he was "not about to hock his jewels" to send men to the moon. As the historian John Logsdon reports, "The general reaction of the meeting was one of almost sheer bewilderment—or certainly amusement—that anybody would consider such an undertaking. Somebody said, This won't satisfy everybody. When they finish this, they'll want to go to the planets.' There was a lot of laughter at that thought."

Within five months, the nation was on its way to the moon, as a new president went before a joint session of Congress. "Now is the time to take longer strides," declared Kennedy. "I believe that this nation should commit itself to the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." Few more dramatic turnabouts have ever occurred in our nation's history.

Why did Kennedy do it? To begin, he was an activist. He deliberately set forth his view—that government should actively pursue programs that address national problems—and contrasted it with what he described as a passive, do-nothing Eisenhower presidency. Along with other leading Democrats, Kennedy wanted to break dramatically with Ike's way. Ike was old, age 70; Kennedy was a youthful 43. Ike appeared to have reacted sluggishly to crises and major events; the Democrats wanted to "get America moving again." Ike had tried to cut expenditures; the Democrats were eager to find new ways to spend money. The Republicans had appeared exhausted; the Democrats would bring in a "Hundred Days" of sweeping new initiatives, in the style of Franklin Roosevelt.

In particular, Kennedy's style of activism was that of a philosopher-king. Since the time of Plato, political thinkers had hailed the prospect of a wise and moderate ruler who would surround himself with the most brilliant of advisors, governing the realm according to their counsel. President Wilson had tried this type of presidency; a Princeton man, he had turned to such leading intellectuals as Walter Lippmann in drafting his Fourteen Points, with their prospect of a new and better world. Franklin Roosevelt, with his "Brain Trust," had governed in much the same way. Now Kennedy was in the White House, a Harvard man with close ties to the leaders of American thought. Only a few years earlier, these leaders had writhed under the lash of McCarthyism. Now they faced the dazzling prospect of ready access to the king's ear.

In addition, Kennedy and the Democrats were futurists, eager to anticipate problems that seemed to lie ahead and to bring forth programs to deal with them. Kennedy, while he was alive, never consolidated his power enough to offer a truly sweeping array of such programs. But Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, pursued this futurism in full measure. He gathered task forces of scholars and experts throughout that summer, setting them to work on education, the cities, the environment, taxes, foreign aid, transportation—14 areas in all. Their reports were in by mid-November; then government specialists distilled their ideas into three fat black books described as "an encyclopedia of American problems, of what has to be done." By Christmas these were further condensed into a single volume of legislative proposals, under the direction of 30-year-old Bill Moyers. The following spring, with the Democrats holding commanding majorities in Congress, the proposals went to Capitol Hill as bills for enactment.

While Kennedy never was able to legislate on so handsome a scale, he had set the tone of activism and futurism. And with the very name he chose for his administration—the New Frontier—tasting strongly of space flight, it was entirely in character for him and his party to adopt NASA's moon-landing plans as their own as soon as the opportunity arose.

It came in mid-April 1961, less than three months into his presidency. The Soviets launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, seizing the world's attention by putting the first man into space. Ike would likely have shrugged it off as demonstrating nothing fundamentally new. After all, America's Mercury program was to put an astronaut into orbit by the end of the year. Kennedy, however, lacked Ike's self-assurance. "Is there any place we can catch them?" he asked his advisors. "If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let's find somebody—anybody. There's nothing more important." At a press conference, his attitude was the opposite of Ike's calm certainty of U.S. strength: "However tired anybody may be, and no one is more tired than I am, it is a fact that it is going to take some time. We are behind."

So it was, amid so uncertain a trumpet, that America set its course for the moon. And when the effort at last reached completion—when the dusty footprints of astronauts had pressed the soil of a half-dozen lunar sites and the leftover rockets and spacecraft had vanished into museums and public displays—supporters and opponents agreed that the Apollo program had been larger than life.

For liberals, Apollo was a significant feature of what historian Theodore White called the Liberal Theory: "Since money comes easily under the modern managed economy, [there was] the belief that Money Solves All Problems, as in the rhetoric of hope: 'If we can spend the money to reach the moon, we can spend the money to save our cities, solve cancer, purify our streams, cope with drugs, cleanse our ghettos…etc., etc.'"

At times this attitude could be astonishing in both its explicitness and its naivete. Thus, at the time of the first moon landing, attorney Sylvia Drew of the NAACP told the New York Times: "If America fails to end discrimination, hunger and malnutrition then we must conclude that America is not committed to ending discrimination, hunger and malnutrition. Walking on the moon proves that we can do what we want to do as a nation."

The naivete in this view lay in equating Apollo, an engineering project, with social programs whose ends and means were far less well understood. Apollo could literally be reduced to applied mathematics, with its detailed features calculated correctly to several decimal places. Social programs, by contrast, involve human beings, whose lives and attitudes cannot be so neatly captured. An Apollo engineer might specify in precise detail the technical steps that would turn common sand into an electronic microcircuit. But no social planner can say, even in vague outline, how to turn a drug-ridden rotter into a productive citizen. It was symptomatic of liberals' arrogance that they failed to see this.

The views of the nation's technical leaders, who supported Apollo, were equally unrealistic. Apollo, they declared, was a fruitful source of spin-offs, of new technologies that would launch the industries of the future. A common view, repeated to this day, has been that Apollo spawned the rise of microelectronics. It is without merit. Pertinent elements of Apollo were in fact spin-offs of a vigorous electronics industry that was already advancing rapidly.

Texas Instruments, Motorola, and Fairchild Semiconductor had developed the basic techniques for fabricating microcircuits during the 1950s—long before there was a moon program. By the late 1950s the two largest sources of funding were the Air Force, which needed the new circuits for its missiles, and IBM. In 1964 Gordon Moore of Fairchild summarized recent progress in "Moore's law"—that the number of individual transistors and other circuit elements, on the most complex microchips, had doubled in every year since 1959 and would continue to advance at this rate. Continue it did; by 1981 Hewlett-Packard was producing microprocessors containing some 600,000 elements on a single chip.

What drove these advances was not NASA but commercial opportunity. It is a long-standing trend that most industries reduce their constant-dollar costs by 20 to 30 percent each time their cumulative production doubles. Data from the semiconductor industry show that integrated-circuit costs have declined 28 percent with each doubling of the industry's experience. However, most industries serve markets that grow only with the population or gross national product. By contrast, the proliferating electronics markets, between 1960 and 1977, gave rise to a 2,000-fold increase in annual production of transistors (mostly on chips), representing 11 doublings in 17 years. A one-year lead could give a company a 20 percent cost advantage over the competition; a year's lag would mean a comparable disadvantage.

In particular, there was no direct line from Apollo's computers to those of the commercial world. Apollo had an impressive on-board computer, weighing 68 pounds and having a memory of 37,000 words. However, its designer and builder was Raytheon Corp., which did not pursue this line of development. When the first true desktop computers came along about they were the work of Hewlett-Packard, which had held no significant Apollo contracts and which indeed had circuits that by then were considerably more advanced than Apollo's.

What Apollo did bring to the nation was bureaucracy. After the heady days of the moon landings, NASA's leaders in no way would rest content with launching more weather and communications satellites. They searched vigorously for a new Apollo-style commitment that would keep alive the costly manned-flight capabilities that had come to define their agency. The result of this quest was the space shuttle, which they blatantly oversold as a path to low-cost space flight. Its eventual failure, in 1986, gave America a self-inflicted space setback far more severe than any ever sustained at the hands of the Soviets.

And today, as in the prediction that drew a laugh from Eisenhower's advisors, NASA planners do indeed want to go to Mars—and more. The $30-billion (and growing) space station is justified partly for its use in supporting a manned mission to Mars. NASA Administrator James Fletcher has warned that the Soviets (does this sound familiar?) "are way ahead of us in manned flight" and could land humans on that planet at least five years before the United States could. During his presidential campaign, George Bush urged "longterm commitment to manned and unmanned exploration of the solar system. There is much to be done: further exploration of the moon, a mission to Mars.…" Once in office, he hiked NASA's budget from $9 billion in 1988 to $13.3 billion in 1990. "The space program," he declared, "must always go at throttle-up."

Apollo was without question a triumph of the human spirit. In retrospect, it stands among the similar triumphs of its era: the conquest of Everest in 1953, the first four-minute mile in 1954, the descent to the deepest oceanic trenches by the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1959, the unlocking of secrets of the atom and the genetic code during the mid-century decades. Apollo, however, cost $24 billion, the equivalent of $100 billion in today's money, making it up to a million times more costly than those earlier achievements. This left it unclear whether future generations would think highly of costly government-sponsored triumphs of the human spirit.

Was Apollo a scientific success? Its announced purpose was to bring back moon rocks that would illuminate the origin of the earth and solar system. In this it failed utterly. The moon rocks came back, indeed; but so cryptic was their message that they failed even to settle the question of the origin of the moon, let alone of the earth. Moreover, each flight to the moon was costing some $500 million—more than an entire year's budget for the National Science Foundation, which was sponsoring research across a broad range of path breaking topics.

Apollo, from beginning to end, demonstrated a characteristic mind-set of its era—that government could seize the technologies of the time and thus usher in a future that would be exciting, dramatic, purposeful. It amounted to asserting that government could select in advance the most promising technologies and by force-feeding could bring them to bloom. However, the choice of manned space flight amounted to making national policy on the basis of science fiction, for outside of NASA's own programs, there was and would be no demand for such efforts. Unlike aviation or even unmanned space flight, manned flight would never develop a community of users who would send astronauts into orbit for reasons apart from sending astronauts into space.

Apollo amounted to a federally funded misreading and hence a distortion of the emerging technology of space flight. Eisenhower turns out to have been right; his space policies are the ones that would serve the nation best. His unmanned satellite would satisfy a host of purposes: military reconnaissance, communications, weather and earth observations, navigation, scientific research. Ike had planted a sturdy tree that would grow and blossom to serve real national needs. Kennedy's Apollo was a hothouse plant that would wither as soon as the nourishing flows of money were withdrawn.

The best one can say for Apollo, in the end, was that it worked. It did land its men on the moon and it sparked an enormous amount of favorable publicity for the United States. It defused the worrisome challenge of the Soviets' space successes. And not the least of its virtues is that it tied up a fair-sized pot of money that otherwise might have been lost in Vietnam or wasted on dubious social programs. What one remembers, though, is Apollo's hundreds of thousands of employees working with meticulous skill and ingenuity to fulfill a goal founded in hubris. What the historians Will and Ariel Durant said of Napoleon may well be said of Apollo: that it is good—and enough—to behold and suffer, once in a long time, the power and limits of the human mind.

T.A. Heppenheimer writes frequently for popular scientific publications and is the author of numerous books.