On July 20 of this year the United States (and much of the world) will remember and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day a man walked on the moon for the very first time. After many millennia, humanity finally broke the bonds of earth and put one of its species on a planetary body other than earth. The accomplishment was a major triumph for the United States and a reaffirmation of what this country can achieve. Project Apollo is arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history.
A new and young president, John F. Kennedy, had the task of leading this country during the Cold War. A race to space was part of the Cold War and Kennedy gave the nation a challenge while addressing Congress on May 25, 1961. He said, “We will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade.” Project Apollo was a big and expensive commitment. Launching six “moon shots” and placing 12 men on the moon cost an estimated $25.4 billion ($153 billion in 2018 dollars) and at its peak employed 400,000 people. Remarkably, only three astronauts died and those deaths occurred during a training exercise.
When the blurry black and white images of Neil Armstrong stepping on the surface of the moon appeared on television screens around the world, an estimated 20% (600 million people) of the earth’s population was watching. Never before, and perhaps never again, will the entire world be fixed upon such a great achievement — an American achievement! Neil Armstrong spoke for humanity as he said the now famous words, “that is a small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Great events have many spinoff consequences. The space program provided marvelous pictures of Earth from the perspective of space. The now famous photographs labeled “Earthrise” and “The Blue Marble” helped to speed along an environmental movement that was growing dramatically. The first “Earth Day” in April 1970 gained momentum from those pictures, which emphasized how fragile our planet is as it travels through the vastness of space.
The decade we call the ’60s was a time of great change, challenges and painful events. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963, to be followed by the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The war in Vietnam had not gone well and the Tet Offensive in 1968 convinced many in the country that the war was a lost cause. The civil rights movement, the environmental movement and the anti-war movement were a “perfect storm” that resulted in protests, rioting and violence in our cities and on our college campuses. In the midst of all that anguish, the opportunity to celebrate an American triumph — a man on the moon — was welcomed.
Then, as now, many questioned the need for a space program. Without doubt, it gave us technological advancements that have changed how we live. Given the proclivity of human beings to invent and explore, the space program was inevitable. The competition and animus among nations also made it inevitable.
Once again, there is evidence that humans are poised to return to space. No longer is space exploration just an American adventure. Countries such as China and India have shown they have the potential to explore space. Hopefully, new adventures into space can be celebrated by all of us and will promote world peace and prosperity.