By Nancy Spannaus

July 20, 2019–“Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” This is the message of the plaque which Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left on the Moon 50 years ago tomorrow. It bespeaks an intention which still needs to be fulfilled today.

I would venture to say that most people don’t even know about that plaque and its contents. The symbol of Apollo 11’s success has long been reduced to the planting of the American flag on the Moon, an image of the “triumph” we achieved in beating the Soviet Union to that celestial body. Yet, as I emphasized in my post on President Kennedy’s announcement of this mission back in May of 2018, the President and his top team were dead serious about the universal objectives of this undertaking. We were out to accomplish something much more significant than “beating the Russians.”

Apollo 11: For All Mankind
Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon (NASA)

In preparation for celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, I recently read a 2004 biography of Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission. The book was written in 2004 by journalist Leon Wagener, and is entitled One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong’s Stellar American Journey. In addition to presenting the chronology, and graphic and gripping descriptions of Armstrong’s many brushes with death in his aviation career, this book underscored two points which I will elaborate in the rest of this post.

The first concerns the context of the Apollo program, which makes it something of a miracle that the Moon landing ever occurred at all. For, in the aftermath of the murder of President Kennedy, and later Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the United States underwent a dramatic cultural upheaval and period of social conflict. While the following administrations pursued the Vietnam War, the U.S. population became a battleground, with the rise of the anti-war movement and the rock-drug-sex counterculture. This would not seem to be an environment conducive to great scientific endeavors such as Apollo and its predecessors.

The second pertains to Armstrong himself. What comes through in Wagener’s biography is a portrait of a man who represented the best of the American spirit of dedication to science and technological progress, a man open and seeking collaboration (including with the Soviets!) with all who were willing, a man whose ego was entirely subordinated to the mission to which he and his nation had dedicated themselves. In Armstrong, the nation found a leader who would fully embrace the universal mission of the Apollo program, and do everything in his power to make it succeed.

A Program Under Siege

The mobilization to meet President Kennedy’s deadline for sending a man to the Moon, and bringing him home by the end of the 1960s, had hardly begun when the President was cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Thus it was up to President Lyndon Johnson to ensure that the pledge was fulfilled. He worked side by side with NASA administrator James Webb to ensure that the funds were made available for the massive effort, reported to have involved 36,000 NASA employees and 400,000 contractors—not to mention the industries and university labs required to supply them.

Opposition to the effort came from all quarters, some of them surprising to me. One opponent was former President Eisenhower who allegedly told Apollo astronaut Frank Borman that he thought Kennedy’s pledge “took one single project or experiment out of a thoroughly planned and continuing program involving communication, meteorology, reconnaissance, and future military and scientific benefits and gave the highest priority—unfortunate in my opinion—to a race,  in other words, a stunt.”[1] Eisenhower was joined by a host of Republican budget-cutters, whose opposition was hardly as elaborated.

On the other side was the opposition from much of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the counterculture itself. Leading spokesmen often lumped the space program together with the Vietnam War as a colossal waste of funds, if not an outright evil like the war. It was normal to hear chants, even at the time that the great undertaking was underway, attacking the spending of “billions for space and pennies for slums.”

JFK at his speech on the Apollo program at Rice University, 1962

Lacking an eloquent national spokesman such as President Kennedy, the nation and its youth did not get the message which he and the NASA leadership itself shared: the firm conviction that the breakthroughs being made, and about to be made, in space were essential parts of paving the way for breakthroughs in the civilian economy. Indeed, without a giant leap in productivity, there was no level of cuts in the Defense Department that would suffice to solve the problems of the slums and endemic poverty which were spurring opposition to the space program by even honest social activists around the country.

The opposition to the Apollo program was not all naïve. When NASA was told by Congress in 1962 to commission reports in 1962 about the sociological implications of the program, it encountered an academic community already contaminated with the Malthusian philosophy of zero-growth. One of the studies resulted in a book called Social Goals and Indicators for American Society, which was edited by the prominent sociologist Bertram Gross. In his introduction to the book, Gross praised President Johnson’s War on Poverty as “responsive to the new political situation created by the transformation of an advanced industrial society into the world’s first example of ‘post-industrialism,’ ”–effectively counterposing it to the pursuit of economic growth and the science on which it depends (i.e., the space program).

According to space history expert Marsha Freeman, another report was written by social anthropologist Robert N. Rapaport, and was to be titled “Social Change: Space Impact on Communities and Social Groups.” This study’s reported conclusion was that the greatest danger of the space program would be the unbridled optimism that would lead “every man, woman, and dog” to want to be a scientist. No wonder it was never published!

It’s not irrelevant that both Gross and Rapaport were affiliated for periods of time in the 1960s with the London Tavistock Institute, which has been in the center of the movement toward post-industrialism worldwide since its inception in 1947.

To achieve its mission, however, NASA had to defeat ideas like those of Rapaport. And it turned out that it could hardly have found a much better spokesman for the fundamental scientific mission of the Apollo program than Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong the Engineer

As Wagener presents him, Neil Armstrong was, above all, not a military man, but an engineer. It was solving engineering problems that obsessed and inspired him, and while he loved the thrill of tackling extreme technological and physical challenges—like supersonic and space flight–his passion lay with using his mind to solve the problems facing mankind here on earth. Indeed, Wagener’s research led him to the conclusion that the reason Armstrong was chosen as the commander of the Apollo 11 mission (the Soviets affectionately called him the “czar”) was because he was basically a civilian.

Thus when Armstrong gave what Wagener calls the “standard stump speech” on his astronaut tours, he really meant it. He never tired of explaining how the Moon program would generate the scientific progress that people on earth so desperately needed.

anti-Vietnam war protests

One of the most inspiring examples of how Armstrong operated is described by Wagener when he recounts the astronauts’ appearance in Chicago for a major parade celebrating the success of the Moon landing in the summer of 1969. After the triumphal procession drawing more than two million people, the NASA tour organizers suggested that astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin visit the site of a counter-demonstration, being held in Lincoln Park. According to Wagener, it was “a fairly large gathering of young people: an amalgam of students, hippies, street people, inner-city black youths, and gang members milling and remonstrating over the astronauts’ visit.”[2]

Armstrong and Aldrin took off their jackets and made their way toward the podium, and as they did, it became obvious that the crowd was in awe of these men and what they had done.  Armstrong took the microphone, and addressed the crowd, starting with expressing how grateful he was to have been chosen to be the first man on the Moon. He then went on to explain “the great benefits that would flow for medicine education, and industry, benefitting all God’s children,” from the space program. He concluded:

“This is the beginning of a new era—the beginning of an era when man understands the universe around him and the beginning of an era when man understands himself.”

And the “anti-space” youth?  They applauded! The combination of what he and Aldrin had done, combined with what he said, melted their pessimism and hostility away (for the moment, at least).

Wagener reports another example of Armstrong’s thinking on how scientific breakthroughs from space could transform and upgrade human life on earth around the time of the first anniversary of the Apollo landing. At about that time, there was a huge, terribly destructive earthquake in Peru. Armstrong was outraged, telling associates that such catastrophes should be totally avoidable, with the use of monitoring from space.[3] We should be able to “abolish natural calamities,” Wagener quotes him as saying. “Perhaps as the space age club of nations expands, we can also see non-violence expanding,” Armstrong also said.

Apollo 11: For All Mankind
Armstrong with Harry Heimlich and other collaborators on applying space science to medicine. (University of Cincinnati)

The third example of Armstrong’s orientation toward the scientific heart of the space mission comes from his post-NASA career at the University of Cincinnati. He went there in 1972 as an engineering professor and stayed for 10 years. But Armstrong was no pure academic. During his tenure there, he hooked up with Dr. Henry Heimlich (of the famous maneuver) and Dr. George Rieveschl, to establish the Institute for Engineering and Medicine. According to Wagener, over the years the men did basic research that resulted in breakthrough in medical technologies for heart and lung functions. One of the keys was miniaturization, which had been crucial to the success of the space program itself.

Reviving the Mission

Neil Armstrong died in 2012. He spent his last 20 years in industry and consulting, and adamantly refused to take up a political career. His last major intervention on space policy came in May of 2010 when he testified before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the House Committee on Science and Technology two weeks later, in opposition to President Obama’s cancellation of the Moon-Mars Constellation program (the program devoted to returning astronauts to the Moon).

“Some question why America should return to the Moon,” Armstrong told Members of the House of Representatives. “I find that mystifying. It would be as if 16th-Century monarchs proclaimed that ‘we need not go to the New World; we have already been there.’ Or, as if President Thomas Jefferson announced in 1808 that Americans ‘need not go west of the Mississippi, the Lewis and Clark Expedition has already been there.’ Americans have visited and examined six locations on Luna. That leaves more than 14 million square miles yet to explore.”

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, July 20, 1969.

Constellation was cancelled, of course, and the United States is now being effectively challenged in the space leadership by space-faring nations such as China and Russia, while our infrastructure and productivity remain at shockingly low levels. Cultural pessimism abounds, reflected in the opioid epidemic, suicide rates, and declining life expectancies. President Trump has declared his intention to revive America’s mission to the Moon (and beyond) on an ambitious schedule, but the prospects for success, especially under the conditions of privatization, prohibitions on working with the Chinese, and budget strictures now in effect, are far from certain.

What is needed is not only strong government leadership, but a cultural shift that can unify the nation around a scientific mission that will serve all mankind.

Apollo 11 made not only scientific history, but mass media history as well. It is estimated that 600 to 650 million people either watched, or listened to, the Moon landing, which was “live-streamed,” if you will, through the most advanced technology then available. People followed events avidly on every continent on the globe, but especially in the United States, where individuals of all colors, creeds, and political persuasions found themselves side by side in Central Park, New York (100,000 people) and thousands of other locations around the country. They were unified in admiration, and in knowing that the nation as a whole had been involved in achieving this extraordinary feat.

Our challenge is to create such unity again, “for all mankind.”

[1] Quoted in Douglas Brinkley, American Moonshot, John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, Harper Collins, New York City, 2019, pp. 452-3.

[2] Wagener, Leon, One Giant Leap, pp. 222-223.

[3] While predictive power has not yet been achieved, monitoring through programs such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Radar) has created accurate maps of the fault lines which cause earthquakes, contributed to the ability to mitigate disastrous results.


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