Why Did the USA Have to Beat the Soviets to the Moon?

James Donovan

5 mins

17 Jul 2019

On 16 July 1969 Apollo 11 blasted into space with three men aboard. Four days later, two of them walked on the Moon – the first humans to touch down on another celestial body. A half-century later, most Americans don’t fully comprehend why such an expensive ($25.4 billion) accomplishment was necessary – why did they have to beat the Soviets to the Moon?

Just as elusive is the lasting impact of the Apollo program. That may not be fully realised and appreciated for years to come. But an attempt at understanding how the manned space program began, and why, can provide a starting point.

It was one of the most remarkable achievements in history. Just 66 years after humans first lifted off the surface of the Earth in an aeroplane, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. This is the story of Project Apollo, and how humans got to the Moon. Watch Now

Combating communism

Most people living today were not alive or old enough to remember the Moon landing, and fewer still experienced the height of the Cold War about a decade earlier. For many Americans, that conflict has become a romanticised background for James Bond movies and John le Carre novels.

Few fully realise how serious the stakes were – the capitalistic and/or democratic nations of the Free World led by the United States vs. the authoritarian communism of the Eastern Bloc, led by the Soviet Union, which had made clear its expansionist aims.

Even more alarming than the threat to democracy’s survival was the very real possibility of all-out nuclear war. The looming spectre of a World War Three leaving tens or even hundreds of millions dead and much of the world in ruins seemed not at all far-fetched.

America entered the Space Race soon after the Soviets’ October 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. One goal was national security; for obvious reasons, they couldn’t be allowed to dominate the skies above. But another, more subtle reason may have been just as important: prestige, a code word for a nation’s political strength and reputation – its influence – among the global community.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space, in 1964.

Prestige

Prestige was a nebulous but very real element of the Cold War; polls in the years immediately following Sputnik and other early Soviet space triumphs showed that the USSR was considered overwhelmingly ahead of the United States in critical areas of science and technology – and some of those polls were in Western Europe, home to some of the United States’ most loyal allies.

After World War Two dozens of less advanced countries, many of them recently created or decolonised, had resisted aligning themselves with either side, refusing to join either NATO or the Warsaw Pact, the two multi-state military alliances formed within a decade of war’s end.

These nations were still undecided as to which side of the ideological rope they would grab onto in this global tug-of-war; in a sense, they were waiting to see which team had the advantage, both to be on the winning side and to choose the system that would benefit them most.

President Kennedy’s “moon speech” of May 1961 – which challenged America to put a man on the moon and return him safely before the decade’s end – in effect moved the Space Race finishing line far downfield, allowing the United States to marshal its deep resources to meet this massive undertaking.

A short, animated video of John F Kennedy's famous speech, made to Congress on 25 May 1961, where he outlined the United States' intentions to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.Watch Now

The tables turn

After early Soviet successes – first man in space and in orbit around the Earth, first space walk, first woman in space, and others – the momentum shifted quickly and dramatically as the United States responded. Over a span of twenty months in 1965-66, the Gemini program’s ten missions steadily pulled America abreast of and then ahead of the Soviets.

The successful Apollo program that followed was the decisive blow. (The USSR had its own moon landing project, which was abandoned after several disastrous test launches of their gargantuan rocket booster.)

Can we precisely measure the effect of the Apollo triumph and its technological audacity on America’s international prestige, and on the Cold War? No – such intangibles are impervious to exact assessment. But it clearly made a difference.

Al Worden is an American astronaut and engineer who was the Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission in 1971. He is one of only 24 people to have flown to the Moon.Listen Now

Why was the Apollo programme so significant?

The West’s winning of the Cold War resulted in the more or less steady and safe world order that is still in place a half century later, with communism experiencing few advances and a great many setbacks. Surely that was worth the $25.4 billion ($177.2 billion today) spent on the space program through Apollo 17 in 1972.

Or was it? Critics complain that’s a lot of money. Surely we could have spent it more beneficially, to improve some of our nation’s serious social problems. But government spending doesn’t work that way. Just because money isn’t spent in one area doesn’t mean it can or will be transferred to another.

Another misperception is that those billions were shot into space, though every penny was spent here on Earth. For an entire decade, Apollo funding paid the salaries of more than 400,000 Americans involved in getting a man to the Moon and back – from factory workers employed by 20,000 subcontractors to scientists, engineers, and technicians at NASA and many universities and laboratories.

Eugene Cernan aboard the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the first EVA of Apollo 17.

And aside from being the greatest engineering achievement of all time, the Apollo program has yielded myriad benefits. The space effort initiated, pioneered, or inspired tremendous advances and inventions in countless areas, with many of these “spinoffs” directly affecting our lives, every minute of every day, from satellites of every kind and medical instrumentation to digital imaging and, of course, computers – NASA’s early purchase of one million microchips kick-started that nascent industry.

In 1975, just three years after the last Apollo mission, the program’s ROI was estimated at 15:1. By now it’s off the charts. The manned space programme also inspired tens of thousands of young people in America and throughout the world to pursue STEM careers and make the world a better place in countless ways.

“People will go where they can go”

Dallas Campbell talks to Dan about the secret history of the Space Race, reveals the truth about the moon landings and examines mankind's insatiable, eternal drive to reach new worlds.Watch Now

Beyond these achievements, Apollo’s most profound legacy may be its effect on the human spirit. It was our first step – a baby step, but an important one – onto another celestial body, and as such, affirmed our birthright as explorers. We have a yearning, a need, to explore – it’s in our DNA.

Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot, once said,

“People will go where they can go.”

Whether it’s over the hill to the next valley, or through space to the next world, they always have. And when one considers the many dire threats facing humanity today, it’s more a case that people must go where they can go. As long as some part of us is human – even thousands or millions of years in the future, when we will almost certainly evolve into beings quite different – we always will.

James Donovan is the author of Shoot for the Moon, The Blood of Heroes, A Terrible Glory, and several other bestselling books. He has been a literary agent since 1993, and lives in Dallas. Shoot for the Moon was published on 15 March 2019 by Amberley Publishing.


Author Photo by Melissa T. Shultz.