Let’s go back to the moon – and beyond

As the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing approaches, backward attitudes here on Earth have tainted our view of lunar exploration.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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America, Japan, China and India have all begun what the Wall Street Journal calls ‘The new race for the moon’ (1). No doubt their motives aren’t wholly pure; but it is those who attack the whole idea of lunar missions who most deserve criticism right now, for they too are in the ascendant. A popular, of-the-moment example is the new anti-capitalist movie, Moon. Describing it as a warning ‘that couldn’t be more timely’, a contributor to the influential online magazine Slate insists, simply, ‘Stay off the moon!’ (2).

One thing unites the critics of lunar exploration. Forty years after man first landed on the moon – on 20 July 1969 – they share a disdain for the grandeur of extra-terrestrial endeavour; for the scale of human ambition involved; for the very idea that human beings should climb into space, as up a mountain, ‘because it is there’.

I have no special preference for size, thrust during lift-off, or the traverse across vast distances. The development of the integrated circuit in the late 1950s, so important to the Apollo programme, was a tribute to miniaturisation rather than to high energy or physical scale. No, my admiration for both Saturn boosters and tiny electronics grows from a respect for open-ended curiosity, for human achievement, and for taking risks. With space travel, a lot of bravery was also at stake. And with both space and the development of semiconductors, there is much teamwork to celebrate – teamwork that, in the case of Apollo, involved not just three astronauts, but the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people.

List of Apollo moon landings

U.S. Mission Launched Mission Result
Apollo 11 16 July 1969 Success – first manned landing on the Moon (manual landing required), exploration on foot in direct vicinity of landing site
Apollo 12 14 Nov 1969 Success – mission almost aborted in-flight after lightning strike on takeoff caused telemetry loss, successful landing within walking distance (less than 200 meters) of the Surveyor 3 probe
Apollo 13 11 April 1970 Successful Failure – problematic oscillations on start, unrelated explosion in service module during Earth-Moon transition caused mission to be aborted – crew took temporary refuge in lunar module and eventually returned to Earth with command module after single pass around Moon and made it through reentry.
Apollo 14 31 Jan 1971 Success – software and hardware problems with lunar module almost caused landing abort during lunar orbit, first color video images from the Moon, first materials science experiments in space
Apollo 15 26 July 1971 Success – first longer (3 days) stay on Moon, first use of lunar rover to travel (total of 17.25 miles (27.76 km), more extensive geology investigations
Apollo 16 16 April 1972 Success – malfunction in a backup yaw gimbal servo loop almost aborted landing (and reduced stay duration on Moon by one day to three for safety reasons), only mission to target lunar highlands
Apollo 17 7 Dec 1972 Success – last (and still most recent) manned landing on the Moon, only mission with geologist

Reasons to stay earthbound

Today’s anti-celestial prohibitions haven’t really emerged because of new developments off-Earth. Of course, there is more ‘space junk’ for misanthropes, concerned always with mankind’s filthy footprints, to bemoan (3). Also, American and Chinese militarists have redoubled their interest in space warfare (4). However, the main changes informing today’s hostility toward space travel relate to terra firma.

Exceeding seven miles per second, the velocity needed to escape gravity, is no longer regarded as a dignified challenge in itself. Instead, even those who favour ventures into space fret about lunar travel today. Back in 2004, as NASA returned to the red planet with its Mars Exploration Rovers, then US president George W Bush tried to don the mantle of John F Kennedy in calling for a renewed conquest of the heavens, and the free-enterprise Hoover Institution, Stanford University, looked forward to ‘a new American empire in space’. Yet despite the (very shortlived) post-Iraq War atmosphere of American triumphalism in 2004, the Hoover Institution worried about US ‘vulnerabilities’:

‘Entrepreneurial terrorists (pirates, in eighteenth-century terms) will attack the power lines and communications channels on Earth – and eventually in space – that make exploration possible. Space travel will also create vast new energy demands on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources on Earth. Successful space policy requires that we take serious measures to protect vulnerable communications networks and pursue alternative energy sources.’ (5)

Here the attractions of space travel were vitiated, in part, by fears – now reviving, in the face of buoyant oil prices – of ‘peak oil’.

In keeping with the new century’s premonitions of doom, getting into space is also now seen in desperate, instrumental terms. People worry excessively about energy shortages, and do not have the confidence to believe that solutions are available on Earth – not least, by harnessing the tidal power set off by the moon. As a result, there is more talk, à la Moon, of going lunar to mine an isotope of helium, 3He, as a low-radiation, cheap-to-engineer alternative, in nuclear fusion reactors, to the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (6). Going into space is also hawked as a means of protecting humanity from cosmic impacts, freakish weather, famine or nuclear war (7).

There’s more. America’s original space flight programme is seen as prompted not only, and in the main, by the military imperative of beating the Soviet Union in missile and related technology (which it was), but also by the thirst for knowledge about astronomy, space travel and extra-terrestrial life – by a ‘burning drive to know new things’ which itself, we’re told, ‘is a form of hubris’ (8). And, consonant with today’s reduction of politics to taxes and expenditure programmes, there is a renewed emphasis on what are felt to be the enormous financial costs of the original Apollo mission. These are contrasted with its allegedly ‘minuscule’ benefits (9). A similar tactic is to argue that going into space is all very well, but… why not use cheap robots instead of expensive human beings? (10)

Finally, there is a fashionable feminist angle to the criticism. Back in 1970, in his typical style, the American novelist Norman Mailer detected sex and the phallus everywhere around Apollo 11 (Apollo 11 was the first manned ship to land on the moon, followed by 12 to 17 between 1969 and 1972) (11). Ever since, feminists have joined him in identifying rocketry in general as an infantile male pursuit. In the 1980s, the slogan of the petit-bourgeois Greenham Common protesters against Cruise missiles was ‘take the toys from the boys!’. More recently, a contributor to America’s left-Democrat weekly The Nation attacked George W Bush’s plans for space exploration by lamenting the 48 per cent of Americans that favoured them, adding that such people were ‘disproportionately men, but you knew that’ (12).

Today’s inchoate, stop-the-world-I-don’t-want-to-get-off-it political culture ensures that all of these criticisms come from different angles. Yet the history of assessments of the Apollo programme shows how vital it is to overturn all the negative contemporary verdicts that are now made on it. The amount and content of negativity about space has always reflected the amount and content of pessimism toward progress here on Earth.

Apollo’s critics before and during Apollo

Twenty-six months before the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the radical American journalist IF Stone presciently anticipated something like it in America within two years, and suggested that voyages to the moon would follow. But he added that man was ‘not a creature to be trusted with the free run of the universe’ (13). Even, then, before Kennedy’s election campaign had seen the future president warn that Soviet primacy in space could put America past its ‘high noon’ and into a ‘long, slow afternoon’ of decline, many people on the left were warning not just against missiles, but also against the whole enterprise of going into space.

In the wake of President Dwight D Eisenhower’s famous 1960 warning about America’s growing military-industrial complex, many other radicals failed to separate space technology, which is progressive, from its destructive military applications. A panic-struck hostility to the Cold War arms race drove hostility to the space race. Then, in 1964, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, later an adviser to President Jimmy Carter and the inspiration for Tony Blair’s reactionary ideas on communitarianism, reinforced this theme and added to it. Etzioni attacked Apollo as an escape from problems of poverty, health, education and civil rights (14). He also ridiculed the idea of useful spin-off, from Apollo, to the American economy.

We will come back to spin-off. Here we merely note that President Lyndon Johnson launched his ‘Great Society’ programme in the same year as Etzioni published his piece. Given that Johnson’s programme shared Etzioni’s themes of poverty, health, education and civil rights, it was not too surprising that the latter’s idea of redistributing Apollo funds to worthy causes found few adherents. At this stage, even the threat of nuclear war was not enough to dent the optimism of American society and the hopes it had, naive or not, about moving into space. So it was, too, that Etzioni’s fate also befell Martin Luther King’s close collaborator and successor at the head of the civil rights movement in the US, the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, who was the most prominent detractor from Apollo 11. Leading a modest march of his Poor People’s Campaign to protest the diversion of resources to the cosmos, Abernathy found himself impressed by the actual launch of the rocket, proclaiming: ‘I was one of the proudest Americans as I stood on this soil. I think it’s really holy ground.’ (15)

For a moment, civil rights and egalitarianism took second place to wonder. Dissent around the Cold War, and around the manifest injustices of America’s economy and politics, could not overcome the allure of space.

The historiography of the Apollo programme

In 2006 the eminent space historian Roger Launius published an excellent overview of some of the main works in the enormous literature on the Apollo programme (16). For Launius, John M Logsdon’s 1970 ‘classic’ book, Decision to Go to the Moon, depicted Kennedy’s policy, announced in 1961, favourably – as a neat, tidy, rational use of federal power for public good (17). As Launius notes, Logsdon’s values were ‘moderately liberal and for its time mainstream’.

Launius does not mention it, but the same year as Logsdon published, Senator Edward Kennedy attacked the space programme. Nixon was president, the Vietnam War was becoming bloodier and bloodier, and a major recession was mounting. Opinion began to turn against space.

The thrill of Apollo was gone, but space still had advocates. Influenced by the Club of Rome’s Malthusian tract The Limits To Growth (1972), the Princeton atomic physicist Gerard O’Neill argued, in The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1976), that mankind should make three ‘islands’ in space, because ‘we suddenly find ourselves growing in numbers so fast that Earth cannot long sustain our increase’ (18). Then, anticipating the presidency of Ronald Reagan, Tom Wolfe published a famous paean to America’s astronauts, The Right Stuff (1979).

Despite Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative and the can-do ethos of the 1980s, however, doubts about space multiplied – not just among radicals, but also among conservatives. Returning to Launius, we find that he names as his second ‘classic’ study of Apollo a 555-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning tome titled The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. In that book, Walter McDougall, a diplomatic historian, invoked the parsimonious approach to state spending adopted by Eisenhower, and, dismissing the benefits of state-managed R&D as ‘hypothetical’, acidly observed: ‘If the lasting benefits of the space programme were in Earth applications, then why not turn R&D money and management directly toward those programmes?’ (19). As Launius remarks, having mentioned Etzioni’s earlier assault on Apollo:

‘With the publication of Walter McDougall’s seminal work, while criticism from the left did not abate, Apollo also began to draw fire from the political right. It was a more sophisticated and subtle criticism, to be sure, but since 1985 it has escalated in the scholarly literature.’

With McDougall we can trace the beginning of distaste for space across the whole political spectrum.

Countering cynicism today

In 2009, with the end of left and right, the rise of environmentalist rebukes for technology and the spread of risk consciousness, reaction against space is stronger than ever.

The disasters with the Space Shuttle – Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) – were blamed, respectively, on bureaucratic hastiness in the face of pre-launch whistle-blowing on engineering flaws, and on NASA’s inadequate risk management (20). In more recent years, however, conspiracy theories have become still more popular: space missions are stigmatised as originating with Nazi missile scientist Werner von Braun (21), and the moon landings themselves are held to have been faked. The psychological problems suffered by the Apollo astronauts are widely referred to, and, at University College London, professional astrobiologist Dr Lewis Dartnell warns that lengthy sojourns in low-gravity environments will leave astronauts ‘pretty chubby’ (22). Yes, today’s obesity epidemic stretches even into space!

The trump card of opponents of space travel today is the doctrine that the spin-off it gives to technology in everyday life is tiny. As it happens, this is a very weak argument in factual terms: one does not need to be a fan of NASA to imagine that 10 per cent, say, of the 1,247 technological success stories that it reports are genuinely meritorious (23).

Yet facts are not the main way to combat scepticism about space. Who can say, at this stage, what the long-term benefits of space missions, or indeed of research into the sub-atomic world of particle physics, will be? UK science and innovation minister Lord Drayson wants to tie science, research and innovation into what he glosses as ‘a new industrial activism’ that focuses on sectors in which Britain has a clear competitive advantage; in which the growth opportunities over the next 20 years are significant, and in which Britain has a realistic prospect of being number one or number two in the world (24). But as with space travel, research into the unknown is defined precisely by the fact that one cannot predict in advance what one will find. As Einstein is supposed to have said, with his usual wit, ‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research’.

The failure of space to present measurable outcomes, which could no doubt be measured by targets, is anathema to New Labour and to today’s Third Way political leaders in general. For them, wonder, the desire to explore, to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and influence, always come a poor second to quantifiable benefits and tangible outcomes. In an era of philistinism and political low horizons, space travel is increasingly seen as a curious blip of the apparently overly positive culture of the 1950s and 60s, probably a mistake, and certainly something we shouldn’t be to bothered with today.

Problems on Earth certainly need to be addressed. But to want to go into space is human. It is a good in itself, an expression of humanity’s desire to conquer the unknown, discover more about our universe, and work together to achieve monumental goals. It is right, and it is more than proper: it is noble.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen looked back on the launch of Sputnik, and with it, the beginning of US self-doubt. Henry Joy McCracken reckoned that there should be more to space travel than delivering groceries to the international space station. He also advocated a a mission to Mars. And in 1997 he wondered why we still haven’t walked on Mars? Joe Kaplinsky criticised Stephen Hawking for his fear-mongering defence of space travel. Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) Michio Kaku, The New Race for the Moon, Wall Street Journal, 24 June 2009. See also Jay Barbree, President faces a Kennedy decision on space, MSNBC, 23 June 2009, on; Shino Yuasa, Japan’s first lunar probe ends mission, Business Week, 10 June 2009; Xinhua, China mulls manned lunar landing in 2025-2030, China Daily, 24 May 2009, and Base station on moon is the next dream: ISRO chief, the Hindu, 10 May 2009

(2) Daniel Engber, Go to “Moon”. Don’t Go to the Moon., Slate, 12 June 2009

(3) Johann Hari, We’re covering our planet with a cloud of space junk, Independent, 12 June 2009

(4) See A Fu Manchu of the dot com age?, by James Woudhuysen

(5) Jeremi Suri, The New Age of Space Exploration, Hoover Digest, 2004, No 2

(6) Michael Schirber, How Lunar Soil Could Power the Future, LiveScience, 13 August 2008

(7) William E Burrows, The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth, Forge Books, 2006.

(8) Lee Clarke, Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p182.

(9) Robin McKie, Apollo … the dream that fell to Earth, Observer, 21 June 2009. The sneering adjective ‘minuscule’ is McKie’s quoting of the St Andrews university historian Gerard J DeGroot, author of the much criticised book Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest, New York University Press, 2006.

(10) See Paul Boutin, The Case for Staying Off Mars, Wired, Issue 12.03, March 2004, interview with Lawrence Krauss, author (with Stephen Hawking) of The Physics of Star Trek [1995], Basic Books, 2007, and chair of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland

(11) See Norman Mailer, A Fire on the Moon, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970, pp 140, 157.

(12) Katha Pollitt, Lost in space, The Nation, 15 January 2004

(13) See IF Stone’s Weekly, Vol 3, No 30, 8 August 1955, in Neil Middleton, editor, The best of IF Stone’s Weekly, Penguin, 1973, p301.

(14) Amitai Etzioni, In The Moon-Doggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race, Doubleday, 1964. This work is out of print, but is summarised in Peter Dickens and James S Ormrod, Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe, Routledge, 2007, pp188-190.

(15) Quoted in David M Harland, The First Men on the Moon: the Story of Apollo 11, Springer-Verlag New York Inc, 2006, p132.

(16) Roger D Launius, ‘Interpreting the Moon Landings: Project Apollo and the Historians’, History and Technology, Vol 22, No 3, September 2006, pp225–255. Launius was NASA chief historian, 1990-2002, and is at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

(17) John M Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest, The MIT Press, 1970. This book is out of print.

(18) Gerard K O’Neill, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, published by the author in 1976 (William Morrow, 1977), quoted in Burrows, The Survival Imperative, op cit, p198.

(19) Walter A McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age [1985], ACLS Humanities E-Book, 2008, p421.

(20) On the reaction to Columbia, see Brendan O’Neill, Is the “right stuff” wrong?, Christian Science Monitor, 5 February 2006

(21) See DeGroot, op cit.

(22) Quoted in Caitlin Moran, Greg Wallace or Danny DeVito: what’s your cosmonaut of choice?, The Times (London), 22 June 2009

(23) For a list of the 1247, each with an associated pdf, see NASA TechFinder. For a single-page overview of some the maikn benefits, see NASA Spinoffs Fact Sheet. For some of the benefits of Apollo to the world of design, see James Woudhuysen, One small step, Management Today, July 1989 [Word format]

(24) Drayson, Innovation in recession and recovery, Speech to Scientific-Economic Research Union conference, Berlin, 6 May 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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