By Nancy Spannaus
July 20, 2022—Today is the 53rd anniversary of one of the United States’ most dramatic achievements, the landing of American astronauts on the Moon. That event was not just a triumph for the United States, but, as astronaut Neil Armstrong said, a “giant step for mankind.” It has been recognized as such throughout the world.
In December of 2021, the United Nations declared July 20 International Moon Day, in recognition of the global significance of the Apollo 13 landing. While no other nation has put a man on the moon, to date seven nations, plus the 27-nation European Union, have all conducted missions to our silvery satellite. They are, in order of mission, the Soviet Union, the United States, Japan, the European Space Agency, China, India, Luxembourg (!), and Israel.
Yet, I have grave doubts as to whether there will actually be any global celebrations this July. As of this writing, there is not even a mention of the anniversary on whitehouse.gov. There are Moon programs underway, of course, notably the U.S. Artemis program to establish a permanent manned lunar base on the Moon, and the Chinese mission for lunar exploration and eventual establishment of a human base on Earth’s satellite. But the scientific endeavor is being bifurcated into geopolitical blocs, rather than serving the necessary function of uniting mankind around exploring the universe.
In January of 2021, the United States launched the Artemis Accords, with the stated aim of being “united for peaceful exploration of deep space.” Since U.S. bans the spending of government funds on collaboration with China, the Accords effectively rule out collaboration with the aggressive Chinses program. In April 2021, China and Russia announced the creation of a joint effort for an International Lunar Research Station, and formally invited other nations and international organizations to join them. There is no indication as yet that any other nation has officially done so.
The scientific space race is on.
Some Relevant History
But is this all bad?, you might ask. After all, the U.S. Apollo program of President John F. Kennedy began as part of the space race against the Soviet Union, in the midst of what could be called the “hot phase” of the Cold War. Perhaps such competition will be beneficial in the end.
The first part of the answer requires taking a closer look at the Kennedy program. The fact is that President Kennedy’s concept of the space mission evolved between its announcement in the spring of 1961 and October 1963, right before his assassination. As he became more familiar with the potential of the NASA program and went through the existential threat to mankind posed by the Cuban Missile crisis, Kennedy came to believe that the United States and the Soviet Union must collaborate in space. In his Sept. 20, 1963 address to the United Nations, he included, among the possible areas of collaboration, “a joint expedition to the Moon.”
While Kennedy’s proposal was not taken up in any form until 1975, it has seen fruit in the close collaboration between U.S. and now-Russian scientists and astronauts in the context of the International Space Station, still ongoing.
This program would now seem to be in extreme danger, given the designation of Russia as an enemy (under Trump), the establishment of the U.S. Space Command (under Trump), and the stance of the United States in the current Ukraine conflict (Biden).
“For All Mankind”
From the time of the Apollo program, the importance of space exploration and science for mankind’s progress has been widely recognized. The United States enjoyed key contributions from Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland for the Apollo 11 landing itself. And the U.S. astronauts were given a disc to be left on the Moon, which contained messages from U.S. political and NASA figures, and the leaders of 73 countries on the significance of the space venture.
The top of the disc, which was the size of a 50-cent piece, read: “Goodwill messages from around the world brought to the Moon by the astronauts of Apollo 11.” Around the rim, it read: From Planet Earth – July 1969. The international messages, of varying lengths, included statements by India’s Indira Gandhi, Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and Pope Paul VI, among others. The leaders’ main pre-occupation that comes through is the desire for collaboration for world peace. All the statements can be accessed here.
The December 2021 UN Declaration continues in this tradition, although it dilutes the main message by trying to cover every concern about space exploration, in addition to its benefits.
To give you a flavor, here are the first three statements of the motivation for the declaration (76/76 from Dec. 9):
Emphasizing the significant progress in the development of space science and technology and their applications that has enabled humans to explore the universe, and the extraordinary achievements made in space exploration efforts, including deepening the understanding of the planetary system and the Sun and the Earth itself, in the use of space science and technology for the benefit of all humankind and in the development of the international legal regime governing space activities,
Recognizing, in that regard, the unique platform at the global level for international cooperation in space activities represented by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and its Scientific and Technical Subcommittee and Legal Subcommittee and assisted by the Office for Outer Space Affairs of the Secretariat,
Deeply convinced of the common interest of all humankind in promoting and expanding the exploration and use of outer space, as the province of all humankind, for peaceful purposes and in continuing efforts to extend to all Member States the benefits derived therefrom, and also of the importance of international cooperation in this field, for which the United Nations should continue to provide a focal point …
And in the U.S.?
In his final speech before his assassination, President Kennedy addressed those Americans who failed to understand the benefits of the Apollo program for improving life on our planet. “Many Americans make the mistake of assuming that space research has no value here on earth. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. Speaking at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, the President highlighted the fantastic medical breakthroughs which had been made as a result of space science, but the technological advances have contributed to many fields, from communications to engineering.
The Federal government’s role in leading and funding this vast innovative project provides the last example of American System economic principles being used to upgrade the productivity of the U.S. economy. Yet, despite sometimes eloquent lip service to NASA by some U.S. presidents, the U.S. commitment to scientific R&D, the space program included, has dramatically declined. Not surprisingly, it appears that the popular interest in science has done the same.
It is my conviction, however, that with proper American System leadership, this situation could be rapidly reversed. President Kennedy mobilized hundreds of thousands of young people out of their self-absorbed malaise, and into scientific careers. Small engineering firms flourished, science departments were upgraded and expanded, and popular enthusiasm for exploring and mastering space was aroused. With it came an orientation to share our progress with the rest of the world, especially in those technology-deprived areas such as Africa – a significant aspect of the American system.
May International Moon Day be the beginning of a new commitment to science that will finally realize the promise of Apollo 11: peace and prosperity on Earth, while we work together to find our place in the stars.
 Apollo–Soyuz was the first crewed international space mission, carried out jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union in July 1975. Millions of people around the world watched on television as a United States Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soviet Union Soyuz capsule.