By Nancy Spannaus
May 25, 2018—On this day in 1961, four months after he was inaugurated, President John F. Kennedy gave the United States its most far-reaching and consequential mission ever. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” Kennedy said in a speech to Congress which was dubbed a Second State of the Union. And if we make this commitment, he added, “in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
He then issued a challenge to the nation as a whole:
I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.
“This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.
“New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space. (emphasis added)
Congress and the nation took up Kennedy’s challenge, with results that were more positive than almost anyone at the time would have imagined. Not only was the specific objective reached, but the mobilization of brain power, industry, and the spirit of optimism lifted up the nation’s economy to new heights of productivity and promise for solving the problems of poverty and war throughout the world.
That promise has not been fulfilled, of course. In the wake of the murders of the President, his brother Bobby, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, combined with a counterattack on technological progress itself by an ill-advised war, the rock-drug-sex counterculture, and the zero-growth movement, the achievements of the Apollo program were undercut almost as soon as they occurred. Spending for NASA peaked in 1965, and the glorious achievement of July 20, 1969 was followed by only five more manned missions, the last of which was in 1972. More importantly, the sense of a national mission to make scientific breakthroughs for mankind as a whole has attenuated to a point of near-invisibility.
The near-final indignity is the fact that the computer technology the Apollo program helped spawn has allowed the circulation of the lie that the Moon landing itself was a “virtual reality” concoction that never happened at all!
Why revisit the Apollo program today? Because its spirit and implementation are last available examples of an American System approach to national economic and social policy as a whole, and thus represent crucial principles needed for jump-starting our economy again today.
A Brief Overview of Apollo and Its Fruits
When President Kennedy announced the Apollo program, both the U.S. economy and NASA were in a state of demobilization, to put it mildly. The core capital stock of the nation—the steel industry and the machine-tool sector, in particular—was in a state of obsolescence. The American Machinists’ Inventory of Metalworking Equipment classified 60% of the metalworking machine tools in use as “over-age” or “obsolete,” and the iron and steel industry were using 19th century technology, with stagnating productivity. Thus, to achieve the goal of a successful flight to the Moon and back, massive changes were required not just at NASA, but in the industrial economy as a whole.
In fact, to achieve the main goal, a whole range of breakthroughs were required. According to NASA’s official history of the Apollo program, the full program Kennedy announced involved the development of: 1) a spacecraft and booster for the flight; 2) a nuclear rocket (not necessary for the Moon shot but for going on to Mars); 3) scientific satellite probes to the Moon; 4) satellites for global communications; 5) satellites for gauging the weather; and 6) scientific projects to be accomplished upon landing on the Moon. To accomplish these tasks, there would need to be dramatic increases in both the quantity and quality of capital goods production, a goal itself dependent upon a dramatic increase in basic research and development (R&D) and in scientific and engineering manpower as a whole.
President Kennedy’s initial call was for a total Apollo budget of $20 billion; $25.4 billion was ultimately spent. The NASA budget itself increased from $500 million in 1960, to $5.2 billion in 1965, the highest level it reached. That was 5.3% of the Federal budget, NASA historians say. (The percentage is about 1% today) The number of direct NASA employees rose from 10,000 to 36,000 over the same period, but that number was dwarfed by the total number of workers involved in the project. There were 376,700 contract employees, mobilized from private industry, research institutions, and universities, to accomplish the goal in the timeframe Kennedy had set out. NASA had the task of managing and supervising this huge workforce, itself a gargantuan undertaking.
What ensued was a classic example of a “science driver” pushing forward the economy as a whole. The capital goods industries went into overdrive, aided not only by the NASA contracting but also President Kennedy’s investment tax credit. NASA estimates that more than 1600 new technologies were produced each year of the program, and they spread out from the aerospace industry into the broader economy. Employment in goods-producing industries increased and productivity surged, especially in the machine tool and steel industries. Some of that growth continued into the early 1970s, but starting in 1972, the peak level of total productivity, a decline set in. It was at that point, for example, that per capita production of electricity began to decline, as well as per capita iron and steel production.
The technological advances that were achieved are evident in many areas of our lives today: nanotechnologies in computing and medicine; satellite technology that aids not only in communication but weather forecasting and other observations; robotics; and the integrated circuit. Studies attempting to quantify the effect of the infusion estimate a “payback” of anywhere from $7 to $14 for every dollar spent, but such efforts tend to get bogged down in technicalities. The reality is that revolutions occurred in the energy density and efficiency of the crucial productive areas of the economy, some of which were realized (as in computing, communications, and medicine), and many of which have not been (as in energy and transportation).
Even more importantly, there was a revolution in the attitude toward solving the problems that impede the spread of prosperity for all—an unbounded sense of optimism toward reaching the new frontier and shaping a positive future. There was a surge of young people seeking careers in science and engineering, even aeronautics itself. That generation is now dying out, and the danger looms that its skills will not be replaced, without a revolution in culture such as occurred in 1961.
“We Choose to Go to the Moon…”
President Kennedy himself did a fair job of evaluating the impact of the Apollo project, years before its culmination, when he spoke at Rice University in the fall of 1962. The crux of his argument, summarizing the breathtaking increase in the pace of scientific progress over the centuries, was this:
If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.
Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? [an extemporaneous joke—nbs]
We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
The President meant what he said about the Moon effort being undertaken for all mankind. Approximately two months before his murder, in a Sept. 20, 1963 address to the United Nations, President Kennedy included an offer to the Soviet Union to cooperate in space: “In a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—space—there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts. I include among these possibilities, a joint expedition to the moon.”
Ironically, space exploration (on the International Space Station) remains one of the few places where U.S.-Russian collaboration is still in effect—and a proposed joint U.S.-Russian flight to the Moon is once again under consideration today!
In fact, the prospects for an economic revival in the United States, and the avoidance of a new World War, both hinge crucially on whether the United States shifts from its post-industrial, Wall Street-dominated economy today, to a full science driver mobilization like that which President Kennedy launched in 1961.