America’s moonshot and the power of a national project
On October 4th, 1957, Americans looked skyward to see their world had forever changed. The Soviet satellite Sputnik was orbiting the Earth every couple hours. The Soviets had kicked off the Space Race in grand fashion, shocking and embarrassing America’s political establishment.
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson was unequivocal about the new threat: “soon, the Russians will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.” In 1958, Johnson supported a massive appropriations bill to expand the American space program and create NASA. During the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy would hammer Vice President Nixon about the “missile gap” between the USSR and America.
As Kennedy took office, the Soviets retained their edge in the Space Race. On April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. A month later, after Alan Shepard completed America’s first spaceflight, the president announced that America would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
Far from naïve idealism, the declaration laid out an ambitious roadmap to restore America’s technological superiority. As Kennedy later said, “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” His goal would demand a tremendous amount of time and resources. By the mid-1960s, NASA’s budget was over 4% of federal spending, and its activities engaged over 400,000 people.
On July 20th, 1969, Kennedy’s bold vision was realized when Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. However, NASA did far more than win the Space Race. Each dollar the agency has spent has produced eight to ten dollars of economic benefits. As historian Douglas Brinkley noted, space hardware spurred major advances in nearly all facets of modern life including: “satellite reconnaissance, biomedical equipment, lightweight materials, water-purification systems, [and] improved computing systems.” The Apollo program shows how big goals paired with effective execution and government-supported R&D can play a unique role in driving national progress.
The Longest Journey
Before Americans could walk on the moon, they needed to reach space and return safely. Project Mercury was America’s first foray into manned spaceflight and established several key practices that were essential the moon landing’s success.
First, Mercury established the public-private partnership approach NASA would effectively use during Project Gemini (the successor to Mercury) and Project Apollo. NASA’s Space Task Force designed the Mercury spacecraft and McDonnell Aircraft produced it. Likewise, army engineers designed the rocket that would propel the spacecraft into orbit, and Chrysler built it.
Second, the Mercury project thrived on cooperation instead of competition. In the earlier days of rocket design, Army and Navy teams competed against each other. Now, the entire Mercury program fell under NASA administration that concentrated personnel and resources on the task of spaceflight. The seven pilots who became the Mercury astronauts came from the Air Force, Marines, and Navy.
In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, with a fifteen-minute suborbital flight. The next year, John Glenn would become the first American to orbit the Earth. Three other manned flights would follow Glenn, and the astronauts would be feted as national heroes. However, a world of difference separated these brief journeys above Earth from a quarter-million-mile adventure to the moon.
NASA recognized that the path to the moon demanded incremental steps over several years. This long-term perspective envisioned Gemini as a stepping-stone to Apollo. Although Gemini spacecraft never flew more than eight-hundred miles from Earth, the two-man missions provided invaluable knowledge about the tasks required to make a moon landing possible.
On Gemini 4, Ed White became the first American to perform an extra-vehicular activity (EVA), commonly known as a spacewalk. Later Gemini missions would refine the techniques for maneuvering outside the spacecraft required when the astronauts landed on the moon.
Given that a roundtrip to the moon would take nearly a week, NASA had to ensure that the crew could survive in space for far longer than during the Mercury missions. Gemini 5 orbited the Earth one-hundred-twenty times during a weeklong mission. Later in 1965, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell spent two cramped weeks within Gemini 7.
Borman and Lovell also participated in the first space rendezvous. Orbiting hundreds of miles above Earth, they would be joined by Gemini 6. During the rendezvous, the two spacecraft would come close enough for the astronauts to see each other clearly. This exercise provided confidence for advanced docking procedures, where Gemini crafts would connect with an unmanned target vehicle. This docking simulated the detachment and reattachment of the Lunar Module (LM).
The Gemini program concluded by setting altitude records and practicing reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. With Gemini completed, NASA was ready for Apollo.
Project Apollo marked the culmination of America’s manned space program. By the mid-1960s, over half of NASA’s annual $5 billion budget (approximately $40 billion in today’s dollars) went to the Apollo program. NASA contracted with thousands of companies, including IBM, who developed state-of-the art computers. Dozens of universities provided their brightest minds too, including MIT, who developed navigation and guidance systems. Apollo was propelled into space by the Saturn V rocket, a three-hundred-foot colossus, designed by the US Army under Wernher von Braun’s direction. The three-man Apollo capsule also far exceeded the tiny Gemini capsule in spaciousness and complexity.
However, Apollo suffered from numerous minor engineering defects and technical glitches, continually frustrating its first crew. Then, on January 27th, 1967, disaster struck. During a test of Apollo 1, faulty wiring created a spark which rapidly spread through the capsule’s pure oxygen environment. Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee perished.
For a period, the space program’s very future was in doubt. Even before the fire, some critics had condemned Apollo as a “moondoogle.” Now, the public and Congress were demanding immediate answers.
Rather than attempting to deflect blame, NASA created a review board to investigate Apollo 1. Frank Borman and other astronauts literally walked the floors of North American Aviation, the company that had assembled the capsule. Engineers, research directors, and spacecraft designers also joined the review board. After several painstaking months, the board recommended a series of comprehensive changes that would ultimately make Apollo far safer and more reliable. “Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity or neglect,” Flight Director Gene Kranz told his team after the tragedy, “from this day forward Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough and competent.’”
When Apollo resumed manned spaceflights in October 1968, the culture of nonstop self-improvement instilled by Kranz and others had taken root. Apollo 7 was an operational success.
Apollo 8 marked a huge step forward as the crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first human beings to orbit the moon. After their quarter-million-mile journey, they approached within seventy miles of the lunar surface and glimpsed the far side of the moon. While in lunar orbit, Anders snapped a photo of our fragile home planet in the void of space. “Earthrise” would became an icon of the nascent environmental movement.
After a successful test of the LM on Apollo 10, Apollo 11 mission put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon (their crewmate Michael Collins piloted the main ship as they descended). After Apollo 11, NASA completed five additional lunar missions. In the later missions, astronauts spent almost a full day on the moon and successfully deployed a lunar rover. They also conducted valuable experiments and returned with rock samples that have taught us much about the moon’s origins and the state of the early Earth.
No More Moonshots
After the first moon landing, public interest in the space program waned. Even in the last years of the Johnson administration, NASA’s budget was cut as the Vietnam War escalated. Now, after America conclusively won the Space Race, Nixon enacted even steeper cuts. By the early 1970s, the 400,000 people working with NASA had been reduced to under 150,000. Ambitious plans for lunar colonization and further exploration were scrapped along with the final Apollo missions.
In the late 1970s, NASA turned its attention to the Space Shuttle program. The shuttle would provide a reusable and cost-effective vehicle for transporting astronauts into low-Earth orbit. However, the shuttle proved far more expensive and less dependable than expected. Among the Shuttle program’s greatest accomplishments was the construction of the International Space Station (ISS). However, many at NASA considered the shuttle a partial success at best. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin argued that the Saturn rocket program could have provided more frequent launches into deeper space at a similar cost. Had that path been pursued, “we would be on Mars today, not writing about it as a subject for “the next 50 years,’” Griffin asserted. The Shuttle program ended in 2011, and American astronauts now use Russian crafts to reach the ISS. NASA’s current budget is less than 0.5% of total federal spending, barely 1/10th its mid-1960s peak.
Interestingly, NASA’s grand plans also fell victim to the ideals of the Reagan revolution. While President Reagan supported Cold War military spending, he espoused the belief that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem." That philosophy has become an article of faith for American political conservatives. Even among moderates, a deep skepticism of government programs has become commonplace.
Faith in government has been replaced by faith in markets. True believers claim that market competition alone drives human progress and advancement. However, economic realities have challenged that optimistic assessment. For corporations, executive compensation has become increasingly linked to stock performance. Investors press for management changes if companies underperform their targets. Corporate leaders are ever more beholden to the next quarterly earnings report and short-term growth. These demands make it far harder to invest in long-term R&D efforts, especially when the outcome is uncertain. For startups, the situation is not much better. A firm may develop a novel product, leading to a massive infusion of venture capital. However, that capital comes with a high price. To justify a sky-high valuation, investors require rapid expansion. That expansion puts an obsessive focus on user growth and customer acquisition for the existing product, leaving little time for meaningful innovation.
Many in the business community have recognized the limitations of the current market system and have sought new ways to pursue ambitious projects. Earlier this year, a set of entrepreneurs launched the Long-Term Stock Exchange to address concerns with short-termism. Google and Facebook have created their own venture and innovation arms to pursue projects beyond their core business activities.
Returning to space exploration, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX both are working towards private spaceflight. Although Blue Origin and SpaceX have shown promise, their budgets represent a miniscule fraction of their founders’ assets (and a tiny percentage of Apollo’s budget in adjusted dollars). Their companies each employ only a few thousand people. While not discounting their impressive accomplishments to date, both companies are passion projects of ultra-wealthy individuals.
The Best of Our Energies
Projects like Apollo show what a national mission can achieve. President Kennedy understood that his “goal [would] serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” We need similar thinking today. We face challenges that the market is poorly equipped to address from infrastructure improvement to antibiotic development. Multiyear projects that require significant resources and provide broad-based benefits to society are prime candidates for government investment. That is not to say government should go it alone. Apollo succeeded as a collaborative effort between the government, companies, and research institutions. Indeed, given NASA’s partnerships today with Blue Origin and SpaceX these companies may well be key contractors for a reinvigorated American space program.
Government funded R&D also brings a cascade of associated benefits. As mentioned previously, NASA research has led to the development of many new technologies from the everyday: memory form, water filters, and smartphone cameras, to the lifesaving: cancer detection software, fireproofing, and search and rescue signals. The modern world would be unthinkable without satellite communication, advanced computers, and the internet, which all began within government research programs.
Finally, Apollo represents the best of our American spirit. It represents exploration and innovation, hard-work and team-work, as well as the relentless desire to push the limits of human possibility. Our history is one of big dreams. We dug the Panama Canal, built the Hoover Dam, sent a man to the moon, and sequenced the human genome. These accomplishments have become part of our national identity. We should be similarly audacious today. Let’s pledge to wipe out cancer or address the challenges of climate change head-on. Regardless of the mission, let us remember Apollo and shoot for the moon.