July 2014 marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the epochal lunar landing of Apollo 11 in the summer of 1969. Although President John F. Kennedy had made a public commitment on May 25, 1961, to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, up until this time Apollo had been all promise. Now the realization was about to begin. Project Apollo had originated as an effort to deal with an unsatisfactory situation (world perception of Soviet leadership in space and technology), and it addressed those problems very well. Even though Kennedy’s political objectives were essentially achieved with the decision to go to the Moon, Project Apollo took on a life of its own over the years and left an important legacy to both the nation and the proponents of space exploration. Its success in was enormously significant, coming at a time when American society was in crisis.
A unique confluence of political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out an aggressive lunar landing program. It then fell to NASA, other organizations of the federal government, and the aerospace community to accomplish the task set out in a few short paragraphs by the president.
By the time that the goal was accomplished in 1969, only a few of the key figures associated with the decision were still in leadership positions in the government. Kennedy fell victim to an assassin’s bullet in 1963, and science adviser Jerome B. Wiesner returned to MIT soon afterwards. Lyndon B. Johnson, of course, succeeded Kennedy as president but left office in January 1969 just a few months before the first landing. NASA Administrator James E. Webb resolutely guided NASA through most of the 1960s, but his image was tarnished by, among other things, a 1967 Apollo accident that killed three astronauts. Consequently, he retired from office under something of a cloud in October 1968. Several other early supporters of Apollo in Congress and elsewhere died during the 1960s and never saw the program successfully completed.
The landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon took place on July 20, 1969, when the Lunar Module, with astronauts Neil A. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, landed on the lunar surface while Michael Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module. After checkout, Armstrong set foot on the surface, telling millions who saw and heard him on Earth that it was “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin soon followed him out. They planted an American flag but omitted claiming the land for the U.S. as had been routinely done during European exploration of the Americas, collected soil and rock samples, and set up scientific experiments. The next day they launched back to the Apollo capsule orbiting overhead and began the return trip to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific on July 24.
Project Apollo in general, and the flight of Apollo 11 in particular, should be viewed as a watershed in the nation’s history. It was an endeavor that demonstrated both the technological and economic virtuosity of the United States and established national preeminence over rival nations; this was the primary goal of the program when first envisioned by the Kennedy administration in 1961. It had been an enormous undertaking, costing $25.4 billion (about $125 billion in 2014 dollars) with only the building of the Panama Canal rivaling the Apollo program’s size as the largest non-military technological endeavor ever undertaken by the United States and only the Manhattan Project being comparable in a wartime setting.
The most important legacy of Project Apollo that needs to be remembered is that the program was successful in accomplishing the political goals for which it had been created. Kennedy had been dealing with a Cold War crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors, the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them, that Apollo was designed to combat. At the time of the Apollo 11 landing Mission Control in Houston flashed the words of President Kennedy announcing the Apollo commitment on its big screen. Those phrases were followed with these: “TASK ACCOMPLISHED, July 1969.” No greater understatement could probably have been made. Any assessment of Apollo that does not recognize the accomplishment of landing an American on the Moon and safely returning before the end of the 1960s is incomplete and inaccurate, for that was the primary goal of the undertaking.
Second, Project Apollo was a triumph of management in meeting the enormously difficult systems engineering and technological integration requirements. James E. Webb, the NASA Administrator at the height of the program between 1961 and 1968, always contended that Apollo was much more a management exercise than anything else, and that the technological challenge, while sophisticated and impressive, was also within grasp. More difficult was ensuring that those technological skills were properly managed and used. Webb’s contention was confirmed in spades by the success of Apollo. NASA leaders had to acquire and organize unprecedented resources to accomplish the task at hand. From both a political and technological perspective, management was critical. For seven years after Kennedy’s Apollo decision, through October 1968, James Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. In the process he acquired for the agency sufficient resources to meet its Apollo requirements.
Third, Project Apollo forced the people of the world to view the planet Earth in a new way. Apollo 8 was critical to this sea change, for on its outward voyage, the crew focused a portable television camera on Earth and for the first time humanity saw its home from afar, a tiny, lovely, and fragile “blue marble” hanging in the blackness of space. When the Apollo 8 spacecraft arrived at the Moon on Christmas Eve of 1968 the image of Earth was even more strongly reinforced when the crew sent images of the planet back. Writer Archibald MacLeish summed up the feelings of many people when he wrote at the time of Apollo that “To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold, brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.” The modern environmental movement was galvanized in part by this new perception of the planet and the need to protect it and the life that it supports.
Finally, the Apollo program, while an enormous achievement, left a divided legacy for NASA and the aerospace community. The perceived “golden age” of Apollo created for the agency an expectation that the direction of any major space goal from the president would always bring NASA a broad consensus of support and provide it with the resources and license to dispense them as it saw fit. Something most NASA officials did not understand at the time of the Moon landing in 1969, however, was that Apollo had not been a normal situation and would not be repeated. The Apollo decision was, therefore, an anomaly in the national decision-making process. The dilemma of the “golden age” of Apollo has been difficult to overcome, but moving beyond the Apollo program to embrace future opportunities has been an important goal of the agency’s leadership in the recent past. Exploration of the Solar System and the universe remains as enticing a goal and as important an objective for humanity as it ever has been.
Project Apollo was an important early step in that ongoing process of space exploration.