The Apollo Program and the Moon Landing

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon (click for source)

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first man to fly in space. His celebrity on Earth was instant. Huge parades were thrown in his honor and he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. To the American establishment, Gagarin was a dangerous embarrassment. The so-called Space Race was one of the most visible theaters of the Cold War. President Kennedy had made the missile gap and Space Race a central element of his 1960 campaign. To watch the Soviet Union pull ahead was unacceptable.

It was in this context, on May 25, 1961, that Kennedy announced, "...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."

It fell on the Apollo Program, under NASA, to make Kennedy's challenge a reality. The pronouncement was not idle. The United States was prepared to commit billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of employees to the task. A massive new space center was built in Houston, Texas. Yet in 1961, there was no working design for a rocket or a space module that could hope to land humans on the moon. There had only been one American in space, ever, at the time of Kennedy's pronouncement. A skeptic could be forgiven for believing the goal of a moon-landing within nine years to be impossible.

In spite of these challenges, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. Their mission was called Apollo 11. The work that occurred between 1961 and 1969 was a marvel of modern science. Even finalizing a design for the spacecraft and lunar module (or deciding to have a separate lunar module in the first place) took years of debate and fine-tuning. Several heroic men suffered death or near-death to make the missions possible. On Apollo 1, the crew burned to death during a training mission. On Apollo 13, the crew was nearly stranded in space after an explosion, and had to brave a thoroughly improvised reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

Werner von Braun was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket which launched the lunar modules into space. In his earlier days, he was a Nazi who developed the V-2 rocket of World War II. He was one of hundreds of German scientists taken into the United States after that war. The U.S. essentially looked the other way on von Braun's past, given his essential role in the Cold War. Yet he was a member of the SS and his V-2 rocket was built with captured slave labor. Was the United States correct to let bygones be bygones in this case? Is this a substantial ethical dilemma in the scheme of things?

Just as Yuri Gagarin was a national hero of the Soviet Union, so too was Neil Armstrong a national hero of the United States. Yet Armstrong lived a relatively quiet life after his moon landing. He announced afterwards that he had taken his last spaceflight, and within a few years had resigned from NASA entirely. For a time he worked as a professor in Cincinnati. Unlike other astronauts (such as John Glenn) who were drawn into politics, Armstrong spent his later years in rural Ohio and associated mostly with close friends and family. He died in 2012.

At the time and thereafter, there were questions as to whether the Apollo Program was worth the expenditure. Some claimed that the money would have been better spent fighting poverty or furthering education on the ground in the United States. Others replied that the Apollo Program led to scientific advances worth far more than its cost. While it would be easy to argue the Apollo Program was a better use of money than the (much more gargantuan) expenditure of the Vietnam War, it's equally true that hundreds of thousands of highly intelligent people were removed from other jobs or research to focus on building space modules, and it is certainly possible that their contributions may have been even more in other areas of society. As a rough proxy for return on investment, suppose that $25.4 billion were put into the S&P 500 in November 1968 (a multi-year high). It would have been worth $1.9 trillion as of January 2015 (after dividends, not reduced for inflation -- see S&P 500 Return Calculator). Did the advances of the Apollo Program yield similar value to the United States? How much general economic growth depended upon the advances in computing and chemistry that derived from the Apollo Program? There is no easy answer.

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