Most anniversaries wear with time. Few, however have faded as quickly as the Apollo 11 moon landing half a century ago on July 20, 1969. More than half a billion people watched it on television screens around the world as it occurred, not an extraordinary audience in the age of Facebook and global identity theft, but an impressive number back then. Few gave it more than a shrug last week, despite dutiful media coverage.
There was never a good reason to put men on the moon, unless one counts the prodigious engineering feat of getting them there. The Wright brothers had flown their first airplane for about twelve seconds at a height of ten feet. Sixty-five years later, rockets thrust three men out of the earth’s orbit and 240,000 miles to land—with thirty seconds of fuel to spare—for the first time on an extraterrestrial world. As a feat of technological prowess it seemed unexampled, although when one considers that the Russians had already orbited the earth and placed a man in space, it was the achievement of more than a single country.
Had, in fact, the Russians not gained a seeming advantage in space exploration and what was (falsely) advertised as one in rocketry—the so-called “missile gap” of the late 1950s—the crash program to put men on the moon might never have achieved political liftoff when President John F. Kennedy announced it to a half-empty stadium in September 1962. Kennedy, having been humiliated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, outmaneuvered by Nikita Khrushchev at their summit in Vienna, and facing uphill odds in the midterm elections two months away, badly needed a counterstroke. He was already receiving intelligence too about the Soviet nuclear buildup in Cuba, which would soon bring the world to the brink of Armaggedon. A race to the moon, whether or not Russia took the bait, was an at least rhetorical demonstration of America’s determination to remain the world power second to none. As a specimen of Kennedyesque bluster, it impressed few at the time, and Kennedy’s predecessor, the still wildly popular Dwight Eisenhower, mocked the idea as a waste of time and money.
The world survived—narrowly—the Cuban Missile Crisis that threatened it with all-out nuclear war a month after Kennedy spoke, which would have canceled a great many projects besides a trip to the moon. Kennedy did get funding for his moonride, the cost of which was ultimately $25.4 billion. By the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were ready to plant a flag and leave a Bible on the moon, America was a very changed place. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King had eventuated in riots that burned Newark, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. itself. The Vietnam War, a Cold War adventure that barely registered in the national consciousness in 1962, had become an all-consuming nightmare that had torn the country apart. John F. Kennedy himself had become the first president to be assassinated in more than sixty years, a harbinger of the violence to come. The president who greeted the moon landing was Richard Nixon, who would leave office in disgrace five years later, and whose administration sowed the seeds of division and hostility that would ultimately produce Donald J. Trump. America might congratulate itself for a brief moment on what it was undeniably good at, a daring and spectacular feat of engineering driven by can-do teamwork and capped by heroic individual effort: the quintessential symbol of American enterprise. But the disparity between the technical problems it had solved in space and the human ones that pitted Americans against each other on earth then and since only threw the latter into high relief.
Scientifically, little was accomplished by sending men to the moon that could not have been achieved by unmanned missions. In all, twenty-four astronauts reached its surface until manned missions ceased in 1972, and the subsequent disasters of Apollo 13 and Challenger underscored the dangers of them. Our one orbital site, the space station, would ultimately be serviced by the Russians as interest in NASA programs atrophied and funds dried up. Plans to send humans to Mars crop up periodically, only to be at least thus far shelved. If you’re rich enough, you can now be posthumously shot into space, and Elon Musk says he wants to be buried on Mars. That’s about as far as it goes.
Paradoxically, the most significant result of our trips to the moon may be the famous picture taken of our blue planet from there, showing its beauty but also its vulnerability as the home we have so largely despoiled. The picture has been credited, though wrongly I think, with stimulating the environmentalist movement. Certainly the moon landings themselves, and their approach to space as such, suggest a very different mindset. Neil Armstrong’s well-rehearsed line about his boot on the lunar surface being a giant leap for mankind imply an imperial mindset, and the subsequent description of the moon—for ages a source of human wonder, and the prime image of human love—as feeling underfoot “like dirty beach sand,” will hardly rank with Shelley.
It isn’t just a question of poetry. The moon is a hot commercial property now, and hey, there isn’t even a zoning board. Just about everyone with a booster rocket or two wants to get a piece of it, including private consortiums. Everyone who comes, moreover, deposits a pile of junk behind. One American astronaut even left a cache of $2 bills. That seals it: the moon is open for business. It even has its own bank now.
We can expect junk not only on and around the moon; we have it around Planet Earth, as more and more artificial satellites circle it and more and more of its land and water suffer the effects of carbonization and acidification. With an American president publicly eager to militarize space, we can expect our juvenile war games to make everything and everyone a target, whether of commercialization, surveillance, or destruction. We aren’t, then, simply marking an anniversary with the Apollo 11 landing; we are looking at the grim future it portended. Born in Cold War politics, baptized in the chauvinism of planting a flag, it represents now not humanity’s propensity for adventure but, in many respects, its atavism. For a species still in its moral infancy, a giant leap was not necessarily a forward one. Maybe, these days, we should think about some baby steps first.