Apollo 11 and the lunar landing: the adventure that wasn’t

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Just over forty years ago, on 20th July 1969, a spacecraft landed on the surface of the moon. Apollo 11 was the first of six lunar landings that were to continue until the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. The last three missions were cancelled for lack of funds: to this day, Apollo 17 remains the last manned flight beyond Low Earth Orbit.[1]

For the millions who watched the moon landing on television, it was undeniably a moment of intense emotion. Who could fail to be touched by the images of Earth seen from the moon, to see the common birthplace of humanity so beautiful and yet so frail in the vast emptiness of space? Who could fail to admire the courage of the astronauts who had accomplished such an exploit? For the first time,humanity had set foot on another heavenly body. Beyond it, other planets, even other solar systems, suddenly seemed almost accessible. The Apollo expedition had made real John Kennedy's words, seven years earlier at Rice University in Houston - words which seemed to open a new epoch of human confidence and expansion, led, needless to say, by the United States with at their head a young, confident and dynamic president: "man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space (...) We mean to be a part of [the new space era] - we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding (...) Well, space is there (...) and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked".[2]

Reality was very different.

On 20th November 1962,in a private conversation with NASA Administrator James E. Webb, Kennedy declared: "Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians (...) otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space (...) the only justification for it [the cost] (...) is because we hope to beat them [the Soviet Union] and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them".[3]

Far from opposing "weapons of mass destruction" in space, the Americans had been trying to develop them ever since World War II, with the help in particular ofscientists and technicians like Werner von Braun who had taken part in the German war effort.[4] During the 1950s, the RAND Corporation and others developed a whole panoply of ideas on nuclear dissuasion, and the means to counter-attack with nuclear weapons in the case of an enemy first strike (one rather fantastic proposal presented by Boeing in 1959 even envisaged the construction of missile launch sites on the moon![5]). Kennedy's words of "peace" were thus perfectly hypocritical, and could barely hide the fright caused to the American ruling class - and spread throughout the population by its propaganda - first by the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the inability of the US Army to match it,[6]then by the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's successful first manned spaceflight. The shock caused by Sputnik was all the greater in that the US had thought themselves to be leading in the development of missiles and space weaponry. On the contrary, the USSR seemed to have overtaken the United States in missile technology, above all in the technology of ICBMs which would be capable of striking directly at US territory. In January 1958, Hugh Dryden, director of the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) published a report on A National Research Program for Space Technology, in which he declared: "It is of great urgency and importance to our country both from consideration of our prestige as a nation as well as military necessity that this challenge [Sputnik] be met by an energetic program of research and development for the conquest of space...".[7] The result was the transformation, in 1958, of the NACA - a commission established during World War I essentially with the aim of developing military aviation - into the NASA, whose budget was literally to explode: from a NACA budget of a mere $100 million in 1957, the NASA was to swallow up $25 billion in the Apollo programme alone.

However, the fundamental reason for undertaking the Apollo programme was not directly military: the enormous Saturn V launchers were not adapted to carry ballistic missiles, while the launch bases were too vast and too exposed to be of use in wartime. On the contrary, the Apollo programme consciously diverted major funds from more explicitly military ICBM programmes. In 1961, the Weisner report prepared for the incoming president insisted that the main reason for the space effort should be "...the factor of national prestige. Space exploration and exploits have captured the imagination of the peoples of the world. During the next few years the prestige of the United States will in part be determined by the leadership we demonstrate in space activities".[8] For Kennedy, this factor of prestige certainly came first. Presenting his government to a joint session of Congress on 25th May 1961, Kennedy clearly placed the space programme in the context of the imperialist rivalry between the USA and the USSR and the period of decolonisation by the old European empires: "The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today is the whole southern half of the globe - Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East - the lands of the rising peoples. Their revolution is the greatest in human history. They seek an end to injustice, tyranny, and exploitation (...) theirs is a revolution which we would support regardless (...) of which political or economic route they should choose to freedom.  For the adversaries of freedom [by implication, the USSR] did not create the revolution; nor did they create the conditions which compel it. But they are seeking to ride the crest of its wave - to capture it for themselves. Yet their aggression is more often concealed than open".[9]

In other words, the old empires (above all the French and British empires) have created a catastrophic situation in which national "revolutions" are likely to fall into the Soviet camp, not because they are conquered militarily but because the USSR represents a more attractive option for the new local bourgeois cliques emerging from the process of decolonisation. In this context, Kennedy put forward a whole series of measures for strengthening the US military, increasing military and civilian aid to friendly governments, etc. At the end of his speech came the Apollo programme: "Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take (...) No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind [than sending a man to the moon]" (ibid).

Just like the "civilising mission" of the European colonial powers in the 19th century, the US commitment to this great "adventure for freedom" came with a big dose of hypocrisy: it certainly served as a mask to hide America's real imperialist aims in its struggle against the USSR for domination of the planet. In this sense, the real target of the Apollo 11 mission was not on the moon, but on Earth.

Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to see only the hypocrisy. The lunar expedition was also a colossal risk: a project of such cost, such complexity, and such novelty had never been undertaken before. The very fact that it was undertaken at all was also the expression of the American ruling class' remarkable confidence in its own abilities - a self-confidence which had been totally lost by the old powers, bled white after two world wars and losing ground economically and militarily.The United States, on the contrary, seemed to be at the height of their powers: they had suffered no bombardment of their home territory, and had emerged fromthe Second World War as the only undisputed victor, with an unequalled military power and apparently in the midst of an economic boom whose prosperity remained an object of admiration and envy for other countries. In the USA, the ruling ideology had, so to speak, lagged behind reality and it continued to express the self-confidence of a triumphant bourgeoisie which would have been more appropriate to the 19th century, before the bloodbath of 1914-18 demonstrated that the capitalist class was henceforth an obstacle to the future progress of the human species.

In 1962, Kennedy proposed to send a man to the moon in ten years. In the end, it was only seven years later that Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. But far from marking the beginning of a new triumphant era of expansion into space, in the image of the expansion to the West in the 19th century, the lunar programme's success marked the moment when capitalism's decadence caught up with the American Dream. The country was bogged down in the Vietnam War, Kennedy had been assassinated, and the first signs of the economic crisis were beginning to appear - the USA would abandon the gold standard in 1971, bringing to an end the Bretton Woods system which had guaranteed the international financial system's stability since World War II.

America's space programme suffered the same fate as its declining economy, military invincibility, and ideological self-confidence. The objective fixed by Reagan for the 1980s was no longer exploration but the"Star Wars" programme: the out and out militarisation of orbital space. The ambition to develop cheaper and more effective means to send men and equipment into space thanks to the space shuttle, came to nothing: today the shuttle is thirty years old and the USA is itself dependent on equally aging Russian rockets to supply the International Space Station (ISS). In 2004,George W. Bush announced a new "vision" for space exploration, with the completion of the ISS and the launch of a new moon mission in 2020 in order to prepare later missions to Mars. But as soon as one looks a little closer, it is obvious that this is nothing but a bluff. The cost of an expedition to Mars would be truly astronomical, and at a time when the US government is sinking billions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is nothing to show where it will find the necessary funds for the NASA. And although Obama is presented as a new Kennedy - young, dynamic, and a bearer of hope - it is obvious that he has not, and cannot have, Kennedy's ambition. The United States are no longerthe triumphant power of forty years ago, but a giant with feet of clay, increasingly contested by second or even third-rate powers. Even the plans for manned lunar flights are more and more under attack within the Obama administration, let alone manned flights to Mars.[10] There will be no "new space era": the great powers are on the contrary engaged in a race to militarise near space with spy satellites, and no doubt soon with laser-armed anti-missile satellites; Low Earth Orbit is becoming an enormous scrap heap of obsolete satellites and abandoned rockets. World capitalism is a moribund society which has lost its ambition and its self-confidence, and the great powers think of space only in terms of protecting their own petty interests on Earth.

Can we reach the stars?

Of all the human species' exploits, the greatest is certainly that undertaken by our distant ancestors 100,000 years ago, when they left humanity's cradle in the Rift Valley to populate first the African continent, then the rest of the world. We will never know what qualities of courage and curiosity, of knowledge and openness towards the new, our predecessors called on as they set out to discover a new world. This great adventure was that of a primitive communist society (or rather a proliferation of such societies). We cannot say whether humanity will one day be capable of leaving Earth and travelling to other planets, or even other stars, but this much is certain: such an exploit will only be carried out by a communist society which no longer pours gigantic resources in war, which has repaired the damage done to the planet by capitalist anarchy, which has put an end to the terrible waste of its youth's physical and mental energy in poverty and unemployment, which undertakes exploration and scientific research for the good of mankind and the joy of learning, and which will be able to look to the future with confidence and enthusiasm.


[1] LEO is defined as between 160 and 2,000km above the Earth's surface.

[2] 12th September 1962: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/We_choose_to_go_to_the_moon

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Race.

[4] Werner von Braun was responsible for the development of the German V2 missiles which were used to bombard London at the end of the war. After the war he worked on the American ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) programme, before becoming the architect of the Saturn V launcher used in the Apollo missions, and director of the Marshall Space Flight Centre.

[5] See "Take off and nuke the sitefrom orbit" in a 2007 issue of SpaceReview.

[6] In December 1957, the US Army's attempt to launch a Vanguard rocket failed miserably in full view of the TV cameras. The need to put an end to the rivalry between Army and Navy aerospace programmes was one of the motives behind the creation of the NASA.

[7] Quoted in Mark Erickson, Into the unknown together - the DOD, NASA, and early spaceflight .

[8] http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/report61.html

[9] See Kennedy's speech at the JFK Library .

[10] According to a report just presented to the White House , the NASA will need an extra $3 billion a year from 2014 onwards if it is to undertake missions beyond Earth orbit, its budgets having been eroded by the transfer of funds to other, more pressing needs.