Next year, 2019, will be the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, since then just 12 men have walked on the lunar surface in 6 missions covering a period lasting less than 3 years. The Apollo project at it’s peak employed over 400,000 people in some 20,000 businesses and universities with total cost adjusted to 2018 figures of about $145 billion. So after all the work and money invested why did our interest in it drop like a stone in a vacuum and what were the real reasons why we stopped going to the moon.
Today Apollo is seen a ground breaking episode in our scientific understanding and technological abilities. In just over 60 years we had gone from the first powered flight of the wright brothers to Neil Armstrong stepping on the lunar surface. Apollo was the not only the culmination of the space race but its also seen as the last great manned adventure in a century where we had climbed the highest mountains, gone to the deepest parts of the oceans and explored the farthest reaches of the Earth.
As time goes by the approval rating of the Apollo missions have gradually increased. In 1979, 41% of people in an NBC poll said that Apollo was worth it, by 1999 it was 55%. In an increasingly uncertain world the mystique of Apollo and our nostalgic look back at a period in history when anything seemed possible has only being heightened by the recent loss of some of those original pioneers like Neil Armstrong, the 1st man on the moon and Gene Cernan the last man on the moon.
But wasn’t always this way, in fact at the time when Apollo was championed by President Kennedy many scientists were opposed to it saying that it would divert money from other projects. The top military were opposed because it would take many of the best scientists from working on aerospace and missile technology and community leaders were opposed because they believed the huge amount of money would be better spent on education, poverty and heath care.
There are many reasons as to why we stopped going to the moon, the increasing involvement in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975 and the budget cuts that followed, the gradual thawing of the cold war and a growing belief that the money could be better spent on earth rather than in space.
But there were two reasons which trumped all the others and to find out what those were you have to back to go back the Kennedys speech to congress in May 1961 and the circumstances under which he made it.
In November of 1960, John F Kennedy had been elected president of the USA, at a time when the Soviets had been achieving impressive milestones in space. They had taken the lead with Sputnik in 1957, the first satellite to orbit the earth, they orbited the moon and photographed it’s far side with Luna 3 in 1959 and then on the 12th April 1961 to top all off they put the first man into orbit, Yuri Gagarin.
All this was a huge propaganda success for the Soviets and to many of the American public and those in the west it really did seem like the US was losing the space race and by default the battle of ideologies, even though Alan Shepard became the first American in space just three weeks later.
Kennedy had to do something, so on the 20th April 1961 he sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson asking him to see what space programs could allow the US to catch up and over take the Soviets.
After meeting with NASA he came back a week later with 3 suggestions all based on using the early Apollo program.
Apollo had been conceived in 1960 under Eisenhower as a follow on to Project Mercury but would carry 3 astronauts rather than Mercury’s one and have much larger rocket stages which would became the Saturn V with a range that would extend as far as the moon but at the time it still didn’t have any defined goals.
The first of the proposals was an orbital space station but NASA believed that the soviet lead in heavy rockets would mean they would be able achieve that in the not too distant future.
The second was a manned orbit around the moon, again this was believed to be a goal which the soviets could also do, they had already orbited the moon with their unmanned Luna 3 probe so wouldn’t be a massive leap for them make it a manned mission.
The third option was a manned mission to land on the moon. This was something that NASA thought the Soviets would have a problem doing and they had showed no signs of wanting to do. It was also far enough off in the future that it would be likely the US would be able to achieve it first.
Kennedy was initially sceptical of the manned moon landing due the huge price tag which was estimated to be $9billion for the next five years upto 1966, in 2018 money that around $70 Billion. But it was the only option that would have the prestige and impact that Kennedy was looking for, it is was big and bold and would send a signal to the world that America was the pre-eminent leader in space and technology.
Although its believed by many that Kennedy was a big supporter of space and this was the reason for the Apollo initiative, in a transcript of a meeting between himself and NASA Administrator James Webb in April 1962 which was released in 2001, he clearly states that he is not really interested in space, he is only doing this because of the progress of the Soviets and Yuri Gagarin’s flight just a few weeks earlier. It’s also been suggested that it was to help make up for the humiliation of the disastrous US backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs which also happened under his administration.
And so, when he made his speech to congress on May 25th, 1961 and said the following “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 the Earth.”, he quite literally meant one man. The mission would be to get a single Astronaut to land on the moon, plant the US flag and then come back home.
To Kennedy, Apollo was a political decision to achieve a political goal. This was to demonstrate to the rest of the world and those developing nations that were still struggling with their future political path that the technological and organizational power of the United States and therefore democratic capitalism was superior to Soviet-style communism.
Although this was an out and out race to beat the Soviets, Kennedy tried back out of his commitment by offering to share the moon mission with the Soviets twice, once in private meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961 and again at in a United Nations speech in Sept of 1963 but they declined the offer and after Kennedy’s death the proposal was dropped by both sides.
It would take the Soviets a further 3 years before they took their own moon mission seriously and by then they had fallen well behind and technical challenges with the N1 Rocket would delay and ultimately end their manned lunar ambitions.
Over time Apollo was fleshed out from a single manned landing to a series of 10, though after Kennedys assassination it become almost a living memorial to him. Even after the Apollo 1 disaster that killed the three crew as they were doing a preflight test there was the determination to carry on and keep his vision alive.
This also highlighted the danger that the mission could fail in some way, they were literally flying in to the unknown. Although most of the systems had been tested and previous missions had flown around the moon, the development of the Lunar lander was taking much longer than expected and the landing of Apollo 11 and the accent back from the lunar surface was something that could not be simulated accurately on earth. If something went wrong at that point, there was the very real danger that the crew would stranded on the moon.
This setup Apollo 11 as the grande finale of the space race between US and the Soviets with all of the nail-biting moments right up until the end. Although the soviets tried to upstage Apollo by landing a remote controlled Lunokhod rover on the moon in February of 1969, the rocket failed at launch, though this was kept secret for many years and it would Feb 1970 when the replacement Lunokhod 1 officially landed.
But Apollo 11 did make it to the moon and after the crew had landed and planted the US flag on the lunar surface, they stayed for a total of 21 hours and 36 minutes before setting off and returning safely home.
And that was it, the race was won, the US had done it, they had beaten the Soviets, they had landed a man or in this case two on the moon and returned them safely back home just as Kennedy had stated to congress back in 1961.
Although there were 9 more Apollo missions in the pipeline, Apollo 11 was the main goal. All the missions after it were effectively filling in the missing pieces to do the science and making use of the massive infrastructure and investment that that had been made to get Apollo 11 to the lunar surface.
However, because Apollo was a political project to showcase the power of the US and the free market system, there was no plan to carry the science on and colonise the moon or make a permanent lunar outpost, or even return to the moon. In fact, like so many other major events that have happened since, there was no grand plan of what would happen after the initial Apollo missions, this rather ill defined conclusion to Apollo was pointed out at the time but no one at the highest levels took much in the way of action.
After the initial adulation dies down the apathy sets in. Even though more missions are planned, a kind of “been there, seen it, done it” type of attitude become prevalent among the public. What was frontpage news around the world is relegated the back pages or not even reported in many countries. Interest from Both the Public and government drops dramatically and the knives are out for NASA as budget cuts become ever deeper.
By Jan 1970 and after Apollo 12, NASA announced that it would trim back 50,000 more jobs from its 190,000 strong work force and that was less than half of its 1966 high of 400,000. Apollo 20 would be cancelled and the its Saturn V would be used to launch Skylab, itself made from the upper stage of a Saturn V.
Out of all the following missions only Apollo 13 really stands out but for all the wrong reasons because it brought back the drama of will they or wont they make it.
There were calls to end the program after Apollo 13 but NASA didn’t want to go out on a failure so it was announced that it was cutting out missions 18 and 19 and condensing their most important goals in to Apollo 17 which would become the last one.
With this ending, NASA was left in a strange place, Skylab was a stop gap measure to make a space station but using left over Saturn V parts and the Shuttle was all that was left of the Space Transportation System that would have taken men back on the moon and on to Mars. It would now be for low earth orbit missions only, basically it would be a space truck moving men & equipment to and from orbit but neither Skylab or the Shuttle had the WOW factor of that Apollo 11 mission.
The much hoped for “giant leap for mankind” would be limited to a few hundred miles above the earth and as such we no longer need the giant rockets capable of returning to the moon or the infrastructure to build and launch them. The moon became a foot note in space history for the next 50+ years as robotic probes took over the job of exploring the solar system.
It only in the last few years that we have seen anything that resembles those ambitious goals of the 1960’s but even then, they are on a scale much smaller than before.
So It’s with some irony that the publication “The Economist” pointed out that Apollo was the program chosen to take on the Soviets to prove that the free market system of the US was better than the centralised government control of the Soviets and yet it took a massive amount of the American public resources, money and centralized government organisation to achieve it.
So were we right to leave the moon after Apollo or should we have continued, maybe with Soviet and other foreign co-operation like we did with the International Space Station, let me know in the comments and why not checkout some of our other videos as well, so thanks for watching and please subscribe, thumbs up and share.