The Russians were first to launch a satellite into space, Sputnik I, on Oct. 4, 1957. America followed up with its own Explorer I on January 31, 1958. Within one year, it was evident that the American and Russian programs were close rivals.
The Russians achieved another first in 1961. The first orbital manned flight into space was Yuri Gagarin’s on April 12, 1961. Within a few weeks on May 5, 1961 as part of the Mercury program, Alan B. Shepherd, Jr. flew the MR-3 capsule (Freedom 7) in a short sub-orbital flight, and the U.S. recaptured a good deal of ground in the space race. The Shepherd flight received great publicity and signaled U.S. capabilities worldwide. Within two years, six more manned flights took place. There was no doubt that the U.S. could compete with the Russians in space. Yet the U.S. almost immediately began a project to land a man on the moon. Why?
Kennedy and lunar supremacy
President Kennedy’s message to Congress on May 25, 1961 was titled "Urgent National Needs." In this message, he called for landing a man on the moon before 1970. This was achieved on July 20, 1969. One reporter has written that "Some derided the dream as lunacy." Engineering this feat was feasible. That part of the idea was not unsound. But critics said that going to the moon had little scientific or military value. They said we could learn a great deal more about space in other ways at a small fraction of the cost. They did not think a manned shot to the moon made sense.
No one had made a stronger statement about the Cold War than President Eisenhower: "What makes the Soviet threat unique in history is its all-inclusiveness. Every human activity is pressed into service as a weapon of expansion. Trade, economic development, military power, arts, science, education, the whole world of ideas…. The Soviets are, in short, waging total cold war." Yet Eisenhower came out against Project Apollo and so did many scientists.
Kennedy had other ideas: "Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere…." and "We have a long way to go in the space race. We started late. But this is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none."
Kennedy was after a splashy or dramatic project in which the U.S. could "win," that is, beat the Soviet Union. He wanted an American to land on the moon first. Dominating the moon had little or no earthly military or economic value, but Kennedy was after psychological gains. The chief underlying theory, expressed at the highest level of our government, was that "This country should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regardless of their appreciation of our idealistic values, will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader — the winner in the long run. Dramatic accomplishments in space are being increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership." "…the Soviets are ahead of the United States in prestige attained through impressive technological achievements in space."
In short, a successful bold feat would win the hearts and minds of the countries choosing between capitalism and communism. That would be its value.
Kennedy sacrificed projects of tangible military and scientific value to land on the moon. Responding to the concerns of NASA’s chief, he told him: "Everything we do ought to really be tied in to getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians […] otherwise we shouldn’t be spending that kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space […] The only justification for [the cost] is because we hope to beat [the USSR] to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them."
Robert C. Seamans, Jr., a high NASA official for many years, confirms this: "There’s been much conjecture about President Kennedy’s motivation when he addressed Congress and recommended a lunar landing and safe return within the decade. Was he a true space cadet fantasizing about a lunar mission from Earth? Or was he impressed with the scientific importance of learning more about our universe particularly our own solar system? Some have suggested that he felt the need for a major effort so that the Soviets would agree to negotiate a joint program. My meetings with the President at the White House on 21 November 1962 and during his visit to Cape Canaveral on 16 November 1963 showed me that he had one straightforward goal, and it wasn’t any of the above. He wanted the United States to conduct a major, readily discernable mission in space prior to an equivalent Soviet Union achievement."
Kennedy’s public talk of the importance and meaning of mastering space was for public consumption only. If the Soviet Union had constructed the world’s biggest pyramid, Kennedy would have extolled the benefits of pyramids and sought funding to out-do the Russians.
LBJ, the political entrepreneur
Prodding Kennedy on was his Vice-President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ was, more than any other politician, responsible for the enlarged American space program. As Majority Leader of the Senate in 1957, he made a political issue out of Sputnik I and the "space race." He bolstered spending for space programs, a new kind of pork barrel. Did he believe his own soaring rhetoric? "From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the levels of the sea, to divert the gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid." Any group of scientists could have quickly disabused him of the practicality of these ideas. But they helped him sell the space race idea.
LBJ was a political entrepreneur, a manufacturer of political products. They might destroy wealth and value, but they have just enough interest group and political support to create political and possibly monetary value for their inventors. The space race was a successful political product, along the lines of the Cold War, Social Security, and Medicare.
LBJ was a budget-busting politician. He said of the space race: "In essence, the Soviet Union has appraised control of space as a goal of such consequence that achievement of such control has been made a first aim of national policy. [In contrast], our decisions, more often than not, have been made within the framework of the Government’s annual budget. Against this view, we now have on record the appraisal of leaders in the field of science, respected men of unquestioned competence, whose valuation of what control of outer space means renders irrelevant the bookkeeping concerns of fiscal officers."
The space race was a successful con game, won by LBJ. Several factors went into putting across the con. First was that Americans were traumatized by Sputnik I. They feared that they would be controlled by machines orbiting overhead, or that it meant that Russian rockets would soon be raining H-bombs on their heads. Unreasoning fear is fodder for entrepreneurial politicians like LBJ. Second is an American attitude, the attitude of being number one, first, the winner. Johnson in 1961 had written: "In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period, second in space is second in everything." The actor Richard Conte, playing another mobster, captured the American sentiment pithily in the 1955 movie The Big Combo: "First is first, and second is nobody." Third is a plausible story. It need not be true, but if it is plausible that is enough. Controlling earth from space had plausibility.
The lessons for today and tomorrow should be obvious, but at the risk of overkill let us remind ourselves that 9/11 traumatized the American public, causing exaggerated fears. The acts of a few terrorists challenged the American perception that it was the dominant earthly force. It provided the background for a plausible, if untrue, story that a war on terror had begun. A political entrepreneur named George Bush cashed in on these factors to initiate the political programs he and his followers wanted, regardless of their real value to Americans. His rhetoric soared to great heights just as LBJ’s had in 1957.
American intelligence on the Russian intention to land on the moon was very sketchy when JFK pushed for the moon landing. We now know that the Russians were planning manned lunar missions all along. They ran into problems. A big setback was that their top space magnate, Sergei Korolëv, died in 1966 while being operated on for a burst appendix. They fell behind in technology, upper-stage rockets and the silicon chip being developed by Texas Instruments company. They had organizational and funding problems. America won this race. Those involved were rightly proud of their accomplishments. Even after we recognize that the American taxpayer made sure that NASA had enough money to do its technical feats, actually doing them and overcoming the many difficulties, actually taking the many risks — all of this was a terrific achievement.
The Apollo project played to American technological and organizational strengths. With a productive economy that provided a large tax base, America was capable of building the biggest pyramid on earth, one that took American astronauts to the moon and back. How rational it was to waste huge amounts of resources to demonstrate one’s superiority is another matter. And waste it was. Manned landings on the moon had no great value beyond prestige, so the last manned lunar landing was in December, 1972. Americans like to pepper the continents with military bases, but setting up a base on the moon was so expensive and the payback was so low that it lacked the requisite political support. The astronauts did not discover any valuable minerals worth mining on the moon. The novelty of moon rocks soon wore off. Enough money had been spent satisfying the dreams of Wernher von Braun. LBJ himself scaled back the space program when he needed money to fight his War on Poverty and the Vietnam War. Extra-terrestrial manned flights died. Had they been of lasting value or much value at all, they would have been continued. LBJ’s dreams of dominating the earth from space have long been forgotten, just as Bush’s dreams of conquering terrorism, through endless wars that involve American military might, will one day be shelved.
Did prestige matter?
JFK’s idea is harder to evaluate. Was the prestige of landing first on the moon bankable currency in the international competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or was it folly to think that it would make a major difference in the earthly struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union? I myself think the idea that space race prestige influenced the earth’s political machinations is highly implausible. I say this on the basic theoretical ground that self-interest is the fundamental determinant of human choice, and the self-interest displayed in the political choices of the leaders of states typically does not revolve around intangibles like prestige. In the Cold War, unaligned leaders were interested in matters of aid, technology transfer, their own power enhancement, security, alliances, trade, etc. The Russians would have a very hard time convincing a neutral to go Communist because its space program was superior to that of the U.S. A neutral would want to see money in the bank, so to speak. In sum, Kennedy’s theory of prestige was, in my opinion, highly implausible.
I strongly doubt that the space race had any impact on the motivations of the South or the North Vietnamese in their struggle. They were fighting before the space race began and afterwards. I doubt if it influenced the Chinese Communist attitude toward Taiwan. The split between Mao and Khrushchev had nothing to do with American versus Russian space capabilities. Those who aligned with the Soviet Union, like Nasser and Castro, did so on other grounds than the Soviet space capabilities. Examples are not proof. Such matters are not open to proof. If historians are able to provide convincing evidence to the contrary, I will gladly modify my opinion.
The Russians invested heavily in their space program to the moon before we did. They didn’t invest because we did, but for reasons of their own. Their leaders wasted Russian resources on their moon-pyramid. If anything, their leaders were even more insulated from the consequences of their follies and even more inclined to veer off into wasted effort than ours were. Their folly no doubt contributed in some degree to the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, just as our follies may contribute to ours. America had its own X-15 and rocket programs before the space race began and before the Apollo program. It could have continued on in this and related ways. Its focus on a manned moon landing was just as misguided and just as wasteful as that of the Soviet Union.
The manned moon shot, like the war on terror, is an example of the inferiority of the political allocation of resources. In their choices of projects, political leaders do not seem to display a high degree of rationality, or at least their rationality seems distinctly below what common sense or even a small amount of thought might produce. The reason for this is that they have power to implement what they think is right or want without having personally to face the full measure of the consequences. They do not directly face the market test, which is this: Will consumers fork over their hard-earned money for the product? Politicians have a higher chance of implementing hare-brained schemes based on false theories. And if they can con the public, the degree of rationality falls even more steeply.