6/22/09 - space race

In today's excerpt - spending $150 billion to put a man on the moon. Large government expenditures are normally more easily approved in the face of a major threat, and because the dreaded communists of the Soviet Union had put the first man in space, the Apollo space program was no exception. The goal of putting a man on the moon was fully achieved in eight years from its announcement—just a few years longer than it takes GM to design and build a new model car from conception to first sale, and in less time that it will have taken to replace the World Trade Center towers—should that ever happen. As the communist space threat abated funding for space programs waned as well:

"The Apollo [space] program was a child of the Cold War. The technological stakes had been raised by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, in October 1957. Apollo was the response of a technically fast-developing and confident nation with bewildering reserves of money and talent. It was also symbolic of a different mentality, optimistic, can-do and willing to confront the most awe-inspiring challenges. ...

"Soviet scientists were soon confident enough to launch Yuri Gagarin into space for a single orbit of the Earth in his Vostok capsule on April 12, 1961. It marked a new phase in the space race, demonstrating not only immense confidence but also the powerful appeal to the public of men in space. While NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the then young and vigorous agency of US government in charge of the space effort, prepared to match Gagarin's feat, it was clear that the superiority of the US could only be truly demonstrated by a qualitatively and quantitatively more spectacular achievement. The announcement of the Apollo program to land a man on the Moon ... came just six weeks after Gagarin's flight and was intended to neutralize and ultimately trump the Soviet achievement. ...

"This was to be the space project of the decade and would not be surpassed by any other country. It was to be a 'giant step' that would convince the world and reassure the American public that the United States, once moved, could do what nobody else could do. This point, the first of Kennedy's proclamation, recognized that the most important and most convincing force in international politics is the perception of superiority. ...

"What about the bill? Kennedy did not put a figure on the cost when announcing the program (that would have spoiled the effect of the speech) but recognized that no other space project 'will be so ... expensive to accomplish'. The cost was indeed very high ... Official figures show that the original budget for Apollo was estimated to be about $23 billion and ended up costing between $20 and $25 billion, thus being, seemingly, on budget, a remarkable feat considering its vastness, complexity and novelty. (These costs in current terms would add up to around $150 billion.) ... This financial effort is amazing when the other, simultaneous commitments of the US are taken into account, not least waging a war in south-east Asia with a fully equipped army of almost half-a-million men and women. ...

"The Apollo program certainly fulfilled one of its principal aims: showing the Soviet Union who was boss in space and, by implication, frontline technology directly transferable to armaments. The relative ease with which the US paid for the program, as living standards reached heights never seen before, must have impressed the Soviet leadership and their allies. As a weapon of the Cold War, Apollo was a total success, fulfilling its political aim of showing the superiority of the capabilities of the United States to the world. Almost incidentally, the race to the Moon (never seriously joined by the Soviets) was won. ...

"By the time Apollo 17, the final mission, was launched on December 7, 1972, the importance of space as a battle-ground in the Cold War was fading. It was generally accepted that whatever the relative capabilities of missiles with thermonuclear warheads, there was enough weaponry on both sides."


Andre Balogh


'Above and Beyond: The Apollo Space Race to the Moon'


History Today


June 2009


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