The Apollo Disappointment Industry

Space historian Matthew Hersch writes:This year marks the 40th anniversary not only of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, but of the vigorous public debate that accompanied it—debate that, decades later, shows no signs of weakening. Human spaceflight has always been controversial, and condemnation …

All over: Gene Cernan after his third Apollo 17 moonwalk—one of the last photos taken on the moon.

Space historian Matthew Hersch writes:

This year marks the 40th anniversary not only of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, but of the vigorous public debate that accompanied it—debate that, decades later, shows no signs of weakening. Human spaceflight has always been controversial, and condemnation of Project Apollo began almost immediately following President Kennedy’s announcement of the moon goal in 1961. Scientists and lay persons alike wondered whether the returns on the endeavor might ever equal its costs, or if it would, instead, be (in the words of one critic) “the most expensive funeral man has ever had.”

Of all the criticisms, only the technical ones seemed to diminish over time. In the fall of 1968, American journalists still weren’t sure if the United States could make it to the moon before the Soviets did. But within months, NASA proved that its astronauts could achieve lunar orbit (Apollo 8), dock with and pilot a lunar lander (Apollo 9) and take the lander to within 50,000 feet of the moon’s surface (Apollo 10). Whether America should go to the moon was another matter, and the diverse objections commentators raised have kept social critics and comedians busy ever since.

By 1969, NASA’s funding had already begun to decline; distress over the expenditure of resources was the most common complaint about Apollo from the Left and the Right: the program soaked up funds that many thought could be better spent on social welfare, defense, or nothing at all. Other criticisms were ideological: some felt that Apollo represented the worst of American culture instead of the best—a government project in the land of free enterprise; an example of American hubris, militarism, racism, and gender inequality; a garish form of public theater. Even the Soviet Union (itself the sponsor of a vigorous moon program) criticized Apollo, describing it as a grotesque farce the decadent West had orchestrated to lull its citizens into a false state of satisfaction—mindless capitalist “entertainment,” according to the government-controlled Soviet press. Other critics noted the uncertain pedigree of some of the foreign-born NASA engineers (Tom Lehrer’s “Wernher von Braun”), or condemned the loss of life in the January 1967 Apollo 1 accident.

The Apollo 11 landing tempered the objections, but only for a while. Ten days after the newspapers reported the triumph, moon news had been driven from the front page in favor of the usual topics of interest: Nixon, Vietnam, the Middle East. Landing on the moon hadn’t changed the world, at least not in a way that anyone would notice; the lunar surface had become just one more place—like the South Pole—that a few talented people might visit from time to time. The only thing likely to have preserved Apollo 11’s triumph from the critics (short of finding large lunar gold deposits) was continued interplanetary exploration; without it, Apollo became part of the past instead of the future.

With each successive anniversary of Apollo 11, pride mixed with ever greater quantities of nostalgia, fueled by scholarship casting new light on the moon decision. For each work of solid scholarship (like Walter McDougall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age) there were hundreds of editorials, opinion articles, and funny but flippant riffs on a national preoccupation that seemed very serious at the time, but increasingly strikes modern audiences as absurd (Gerard DeGroot’s Dark Side of the Moon; Jon Stewart on The Daily Show). The arguments, like Apollo itself, are frozen time: that establishing NASA was a mistake; that NASA should have gone to the moon in partnership with the Soviets or not at all; that it should have stopped at the first landing, or flown people better able to interpret or take advantage of the trip (scientists, philosophers, artists). Other critics have balked at America’s loss of nerve, wondering why it failed to capitalize on its moon success with further explorations of the solar system. Conjuring the unsavory image of Holocaust deniers, some would even rob Apollo of its history, insisting that the landings were faked on a soundstage. Efforts to debunk the debunkers have spawned a sub-literature (Moon Base Clavius) that is in equal measures fascinating and sad.

Long after Apollo’s technical achievements are dwarfed by other adventures, its greatest legacy may be the volume of comment it generated. As a free society, the United States tolerated public criticism of the space program in a way other nations would never have allowed. The criticism almost certainly made Apollo a better program: stronger, more focused, and imbued with urgency. Were they to visit our world in a time machine, the emperors of ancient civilizations would easily understand why America went to the moon in 1969. What might make them wonder is why the nation tolerated such criticism, or how it could pull off the landings in spite of it.

Hersch, an HSS/NASA Fellow in the History of Space Science at the University of Pennsylvania, is writing a labor history of American astronauts.

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