July 28, 1969
There is cause for genuine admiration, even awe, at what the Apollo program has accomplished. At this writing, the spacecraft is on its way, and there is reasonable expectation that the rest of the trip will be accomplished on schedule. After the tragic failure in January of 1967, American engineering talent took hold, and the most complex machine ever conceived by man has performed almost faultlessly on every test. The courage and self-control of the astronauts is to be applauded; there may even be some unforeseen benefit to mankind in what they bring back from the moon, but even the most unsurprising results will serve to extend human knowledge of the universe.
But knowledge of another type could be gained from the undertaking: knowledge of ourselves. Our national response to the first Sputnik has astonished the world–including, probably, the Russians. Its appearance in the skies on October 4, 1957, triggered U.S. production of adrenalin to a new record. Not Pearl Harbor, nor Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s discovery of the Communist conspiracy, had caused the collective American pulse to pound at such a rate. Had a five-pointed Red Star, in place of the moon, been seen in the heaven the following night, our national panic could not have been greater. The event was subsequently alluded to in NASA’s public relations pronouncements as a “disaster,” creating a “national emergency.” Webb’s Magical Flying Circus was off the ground from then on.
Had there been no Soviet satellite in 1957, Americans would not by now be reaching for the moon. Our whole space program has been fuelled by the U.S. reaction to the first and subsequent Russian exploits. A predictable, almost Pavlovian reflex has developed; the Russians and the world have learned much, in the process, of what makes us tick. Have we learned as much about ourselves? Over the past twelve years, we have successively been challenged, enraged, and spurred into action–and have demonstrated to all our courage, strength, speed, ingenuity and technical skill.
The Russians’ role in the lunar rivalry may perhaps have been as reflexively competitive as our own, or it may have been more sophisticated and more subtly motivated. But with Luna 15, which was threatening at the last possible moment to beat us to the moondust strike (at a small fraction of the cost and risk), Pavlov’s bell rang once more. The saliva has already started to flow. Mr. Agnew has urged, as a new objective, a landing on Mars. And Thomas O. Paine, who succeeded James Webb as head of NASA, indicates his approval. It was Paine who, after the successful return of the Apollo 8 astronauts, defended NASA’s budget by saying that the technology involved would be helpful in “winning” the next war, a comment that somewhat tarnishes the “Space Olympics” image of the moon race, and a further reason for greeting the agency’s annual budget demands with more than legislative huzzahs.
NASA has spent a total of $50 billion since the start, half of which has gone toward the Apollo program. Much has been quite rightly said about the irony of spending billions getting to the moon while the mass of humanity at home lives in a stew of exploding population, poverty and pollution. But all that will be but as a pinprick in our hide, should we seriously decide to strike out for the planets. They are more than a hundred times more remote than the moon in distance, in time, in economic and human cost. The time of decision is here, and the euphoria of the moment–however understandable it may be–must not be allowed to obscure our judgment.