This week is the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing – which I consider to have been a significant achievement.
I do think that it is important to recognize the actual historical role of the Apollo mission. It was a part of a proxy war between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
In an age of nuclear weapons, a real war would have been too costly. It might well have resulted in the extinction of the human race. So, there was a reason to avoid a real war and to fight a proxy war instead. Mostly, it would require an extensive commitment of national will and resources to accomplish a goal, where that goal at least approximates the types of abilities that would have been relevant in a war.’
One of the technologies was missile technologies.
There was a reason why the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 was such a shock to the nation. If the Russians can put something in space that went over the United States, then it could land something in the United States – such as a nuclear warhead. When Americans thought of Sputnik flying overhead, it was the same as thinking about a weapons platform where the Soviets could simply drop nuclear bombs on the United States.
This is what made the Apollo program an acceptable proxy for a war with the Soviet Union. At its core, it involved missile technology – the same technology used to deliver warheads to an enemy country.
Imagine two countries locked in conflict that get together and say, “Okay, wars are destructive. We are not going to settle this dispute with a war. Rather, we will decide this issue by a race. The bst country is the country that can win the race.
Now, none of this was conscious. Instead, the pieces just fell into place. The Soviets announced in dramatic fashion their ability to attack the United States. The United States (under President Kennedy) answered with a challenge to the Soviets to test the technological abilities of both countries with a race to the moon. The Soviets accepted the challenge, and the race was on.
This is why the Apollo program was worth so much money. Regardless of how much we spent on Apollo, it was cheaper than the war it was substituting for. In fact, the program had to cost a great deal of money in order to serve as a proxy for war. The nation had to mobilize its resources, demonstrate its commitment and resolve, and throw its will into winning the race, as it would have had to do in order to win a war.
It also explains why, after Apollo 11, interest in the space program waned so dramatically. The race was over. When the game ends, the fans go home. They may allow the winner the courtesy of staying through a victory lap (Apollo 12), but not much beyond that – unless something exciting happens (Apollo 13).
Apollo was never really about exploring space. It was about beating the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had been beaten. The game was over.
Then, as with any sports events, the players shake hands at the end and the losers congratulate the winners. As was done with the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions.
It was a grand idea to hold a race instead of fighting an actual war. We need to do this kind of thing most often. The Apollo program was not nearly as destructive as a war – it actually did some good.