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Thought piece: The problem with Apollo

As the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the lunar surface approaches, Dr Bleddyn Bowen, Lecturer in International Relations, School of History, Politics and International Relations, discusses the problems with Apollo. 

The American ‘moonshot’ is arguably one of the most memorable moments of the Cold War, if not the 20th century. It captured the world’s attention with record global viewing figures on live television and cemented the success of America’s military-industrial-scientific complex in the minds of friend and foe alike. It is not for nothing that the achievements of the Apollo programme, totalling six crewed landings on the Moon, are looked on with romantic nostalgia—not least in First Man, a recent Hollywood blockbuster starring Ryan Gosling. Indeed, some believe Apollo is the pinnacle of American achievement in space and that it should be emulated by today’s civilian or crewed space exploration programmes.

This is a debate that has raged for decades within the US space policy community—whether the culture of the Apollo programme is something worth clinging on to as a model for renewed efforts to send humans beyond Earth orbit. Hindsight and popular memory can conceal the more complex truths surrounding such episodes of contemporary history. Rather than being a visionary of space exploration, President John F. Kennedy saw the moonshot as a tool to reclaim American prestige, and grew increasingly concerned with its soaring costs and the diversion of funds from other, more deserving, spending needs.

At one point, NASA’s budget reached 4% of American gross domestic product (GDP). Kennedy had a clear instrumental rationale for the space programme with regard to the geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union and satisfying domestic political objectives. Kennedy did at one point say that he was ‘not that interested in space’; crewed spaceflight had to accomplish practical political goals and Apollo was not a first step in an aggressive long-term programme to explore the cosmos. Inside the White House, there was debate about the idea of using the moonshot to beat the Soviets in the propaganda war—Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson argued in a memo that the competitive Cold War aspects of their crewed exploration of space should be toned down. Kennedy himself floated the idea of a joint American-Soviet lunar landing, and offered it to Khrushchev, the Soviet premier. When Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked Khrushchev about a joint mission, the latter responded by saying ‘Sure, I’ll send a man to the moon. You bring him back.’ Soviet responses to such an offer were half-hearted, and the idea effectively died along with Kennedy himself in 1963.

Like all major science and engineering projects, the Apollo programme was not developed in a political vacuum. That reality is often lost in contemporary space policy and exploration debates as America continues to find its role in the 21st century and other space powers flex their technological and economic might in and beyond Earth orbit. News editors and pundits cannot help but describe anything happening in space as a ‘race’, invoking the ghost of Apollo often to a detrimental effect.

Space is where many different kinds of activities happen, for good and ill. Major states and corporations are developing Earth orbit and exploring outer space at their own pace as their needs, ambitions, and budgets allow. Different states and private actors compete and cooperate in every sector of space activity, whether for military applications, commercial services, critical infrastructure development and monitoring, or scientific exploration. Modern military forces need satellites to coordinate and conduct their operations and precise missile strikes; today’s digital financial systems cannot operate without the atomic clocks on-board the US Air Force’s Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.

Outer space is a place, not a single policy issue. Asking whether space is characterised by competition or cooperation is like asking if the international seas are places of cooperation or conflict. Space activities are a continuation of terrestrial politics by other means; they are forms of cooperation, competition, and rivalry; of making profits and dispensing influence within and between states and markets. Space projects require political coalitions, funding programmes, and often generations-long commitments to see them through, which poses challenges to some democratic states that may struggle to build a political consensus that lasts beyond a single term in office.

Originally, the Kennedy administration ranked international cooperation as the last rationale for the American space programme, below American prestige, security, science, and non-military spinoff technologies. Indeed, NASA’s deep space launch capabilities required a large heavy-lift rocket, and developing such a rocket also allowed the United States to meet this gap in its long-range missile programme, which at the time was behind the Soviet missile programme in terms of nuclear bomb-lifting capacity.

The Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s used the guise of the International Geophysical Year to mask its efforts to develop the first photo-reconnaissance satellites, the CORONA programme. The Soviet space programme was also enmeshed in this dual-use nature of space technology. The Soviet Union lacked the capabilities to reliably deliver its nuclear weapons to the continental United States in the 1950s, and a rocket and missile programme was a far more assured way to do so than aircraft that could be shot down. A civilian-facing and spectacular scientific story for rocket development provided the USSR with a great propaganda tool as well as new military options and methods of ensuring its territorial security against the United States.

The political elements of civilian and crewed space exploration should be remembered as China and America make grand promises about lunar exploration today. Although NASA has triumphed in several robotic space missions since Apollo—Opportunity, Curiosity, Juno, and Voyager, to name a few—its crewed space programme plan after the Shuttle and beyond the International Space Station has oscillated between the Moon, asteroids, and Mars depending on the President of the day and the political headwinds in budgetary battles. Any ambitious crewed project has lacked any real funding beyond the development of the SLS heavy lift rocket. China was shut out of the International Space Station due to US Congress’ prohibition on NASA cooperating in any official capacity with Chinese space agencies after the Tiananmen Square massacre and increasing concerns about high-technology transfers.

The law barring such cooperation is still in place, though the wind may be blowing against it and may change in future, opening the door to more civilian space cooperation and exchange between America and China. China has been consistently developing its robotic and crewed space exploration capabilities. 2003 saw the first crewed Chinese spaceflight. Today, China is on the verge of de-orbiting its second space station and on track to launch its third once the Long March 5B rocket is brought into working order. To much media fanfare and mild China-threat hysteria, they launched another robotic rover to the moon after deploying a lunar orbiting satellite in early 2019. Beijing’s ambitions in the longer term seem greater still if the Long March 9 heavy-lift rocket comes to fruition in another ten years. Such a heavy lift capability would also allow China to efficiently launch heavier and larger satellites into the geosynchronous orbital belt, a lucrative zone for military uses.

For its part, India has sent probes to the Moon and Mars, whilst Europe and Japan have landed robots on comets and asteroids. In recent years, the United Arab Emirates has been spending 1.4% of its GDP on its space programme with a century-long vision of Martian exploration. Many ‘smaller’ or less ‘profligate’ states, such as Brazil, Ukraine, and Canada are able to arrange cooperative tickets to space for satellite development and services without relying on America and its allies. British universities and companies, together creating a leading global centre of a small satellite space industry, are developing a particular preference for Indian launch services. Indeed, a post-American future in space is now all-to-easy to envisage.

What’s behind such efforts? It should be noted that crewed or robotic space exploration missions are the tip of the iceberg of those countries’ space industries, high technology economies, and military capabilities. Wealth and security continue to be the primary drivers of space exploitation. SpaceX, much-lauded for saving money in the space economy, has merely begun to replace the United Launch Alliance as the private company of choice for American military and intelligence satellite payloads. 21st century economic and military power cannot function without the hundreds of satellites now orbiting Earth and the high-technology skills and industry needed to sustain them.

Investing in research and development, partly in space exploration, helps stimulate the space science and engineering sectors which can have many benefits for a state’s economy and security through enhanced capabilities and competitive products and services. For decades, the big economic and military powers have been consistently investing in space capabilities for military and civilian purposes; to enhance security and military power as well as to exploit the commercial benefits of space and train new generations of scientists and engineers.

For example, the European Union and China have invested in satellite navigation systems for decades and they will soon rival the United States and Russia as independent ‘sat-nav’ providers, rather than just consumers. India has mastered upper-stage cryogenic fuel technology—which allows for big payloads to be deployed at the highest useful Earth orbits—after years of American attempts to prevent such efforts. Also in the mix are the symbolism and domestic political concerns surrounding such projects, especially flagship missions. Events in recent months regarding Brexit have shown how UK space policy has become more of a symbolic political fight over cutting edge civilian and military space infrastructure. India’s achievement to be the first Asian state to send a mission to Mars was simultaneously viewed as a snub to Chinese lunar achievements, but also produced prejudiced editorials regarding the scientific capabilities and spending priorities of a developing state, rather than as a side-mission riding on the back of decades of using indigenous rockets and satellites to drive Indian socioeconomic development.

Apollo as the popular image of space disguises the real, ubiquitous, and multifaceted nature of space activities, both past and present. No doubt it should be remembered and celebrated as a triumph of ingenuity and capability. But it remains something of an exception; a one-off that had no long-term goal to utilise a political-economy across the Sol system. Apollo not only swallowed funds across the US space sector at its peak, but its veneration continues to draw attention away from the primary uses of space today: to deploy satellites in Earth orbit to enhance military and economic power, as well as stimulate terrestrial high-technology industries. This problem has been aptly demonstrated by the US President Donald Trump, who said that—following his announcement of a Space Force and the reconstitution of the National Space Council—NASA is ‘back’ or being ‘re-opened’, ludicrously implying that it had been ‘away’, ‘closed’, or idle since then.

That said, however, the NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and documentation from the US National Space Council have emphasised the sustainability of a future American human presence on the Moon. This tone and attitude is to be welcomed in part because it is specifically trying to avoid the one-off stunt-like quality of Apollo and build a lasting future on the Moon that will contribute to life on Earth.

NASA’s achievements in space exploration since Apollo are nothing short of inspiring. Unlike Apollo, in space there is no race, no clearly defined destination or goal, just continued development, exploitation, and exploration for myriad terrestrial needs. Those calling for a return to an Apollo spirit may not want to replicate its massive budgetary strain, or how the programme ended so quickly and quietly. Advocates may also want to avoid a situation where the programme becomes too big to fail because of the sheer number of jobs and political careers depending on it.

Perhaps a more fitting analogy for a massive national effort to develop crewed spaceflight to the Moon and beyond may be the Manhattan Project, which created America’s nuclear weapons programme, or the interstate highways programme. They, after all, had clearly defined and funded goals, but also longer-term political and economic thinking behind them to support second-order activities once they were completed. Though Apollo certainly accelerated American space technology, there’s more to outer space than America and the Moon landings, and there’s more to Apollo than exploration and pushing human capabilities to their limits. Remember Apollo and the landmark footsteps of Neil Armstrong, but remember them as the curiously exceptional achievements they were.

  • This blog post was originally written for the British Online Archives and has been reposted here with permission. The original can be found here. Minor changes have been included to reflect subsequent events.
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