Apollo:  An American Victory in the Cold War


Paul D. Spudis


            This week will mark the 30th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon by the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.  Much attention will be paid to this anniversary, commemorating the mission’s historical significance and how it revolutionized science and technology.  Indeed, the Apollo program was a boon to science in that the data returned from the Moon landings created a new paradigm through which to view the origin and evolution of our solar system.  Moreover, Apollo’s contributions to technology development, commonly called “spin-off”, undoubtedly created wealth, new products, and innovations that have made our lives safer, easier, and happier.


            But the real significance of Apollo never seems to be discussed.  It’s commonly acknowledged that the initiation of the Apollo program by President John F. Kennedy in May, 1961 was done primarily for reasons of national prestige, part of our ongoing geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union.  Even academic scientists, as insular and parochial as they are, recognize that Apollo was not undertaken for scientific reasons.  Nor was the goal of a Moon landing undertaken for its own sake – in the words of Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest, “Because it’s there.”  The great explorations of the Victorian age had become an irrelevancy in the age of the ICBM and push-button warfare.  No, the goal of the Moon was a technological challenge, a gauntlet thrown down before our global competitor, the Soviet Union, challenging them to a technocratic fight to the finish.  Although it is commonly acknowledged that we won this challenge, the profound effects of that victory are less often considered.


            Despite their subsequent claims to the contrary, it is now clear that in the early sixties, the Soviets had accepted Kennedy’s challenge.  The breathless competition in space at that time was conducted with a seriousness that we can scarcely credit these days, with each new “first” being heralded as the key to space success (and by inference, global domination).  The Soviets orbited the first satellite, the first man, the first woman, and were the first to hit the Moon with a man-made object.  They orbited the first multi-man crews and one of their cosmonauts, Aleksei Leonov, made the first “walk in space,” floating outside his spacecraft in 1965.  America, stumbling at first, rapidly caught up and matched most Soviet achievements.  We soon began making our own space firsts – the first rendezvous and docking in orbit, long duration space walks, and the successful flight of the giant Saturn V booster.  But everyone knew the high-stakes measure of success – to be the first to reach the Moon with people.


            A series of momentous events, only some fully visible to the public, in late 1968 and early 1969 sealed the fate of the world’s first “space race.”  In America, the successful Christmas-time flight of Apollo 8 into lunar orbit captured the imagination of the world.  A few months later, the first Lunar Module, the vehicle designed to land men on the Moon, was successfully tested in Earth orbit during the flight of Apollo 9.  These two events all but assured that the United States would accomplish its goal of landing a man on the Moon, “before this decade is out.”  This goal was finally realized with the epic flight of Apollo 11 in July of 1969.  In contrast, and largely unknown to the world until recently, the Soviet Moon rocket, the gigantic N-1, a vehicle even larger than the American Saturn V, blew up twice—one booster detonated on the pad and another rocket exploded a few tens of seconds after lift-off.  These disastrous failures, covered-up for 25 years, sealed the fate of the Soviet Moon program.  Without an operational heavy lift booster to deliver their spacecraft, no Soviet lunar mission was possible.  America won the Moon.


            Although the meaning of Apollo was debated endlessly in the western press, often in a naïve and fatuous manner (e.g., “we spent $24 billion for a box of rocks?”), what lessons did the Soviet Union draw from this disaster?  Apparently, the Soviets became convinced that, in programs of vast technical scope, particularly those requiring the practical application of high technology (e.g., high-speed computing) to very complex problems, America could accomplish anything.  The Soviets viewed the Americans as having achieved, though a combination of great wealth, technical skill, and resolute determination, an extremely difficult technological goal—one which they themselves had attempted and failed, at great cost both in human lives and national treasure.


            What effect did such a calculus have on future actions?  In 1983, another President, Ronald W. Reagan, called upon the scientific and technical community of the United States and the free world, who had given the world nuclear weapons, to develop a missile defense – one that would make America and other countries free from the fear of nuclear annihilation.  This program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars” to its critics) was specifically conceived to counter the prevailing strategic doctrine of “mutually assured destruction (MAD)”, in which a nation would never start a nuclear war because it would fear its own destruction by retaliatory strikes.  The price of peace in a MAD scenario was to live in a state of permanent fear.  The promise of SDI was to eliminate that fear by defending ourselves from nuclear missile attack.


            The Strategic Defense Initiative was roundly criticized and belittled by many in the west, who thought it “destabilizing.”  Numerous scientists, including those who had done weapons work, criticized it as “unachievable.”  Arms control “specialists” decried “Star Wars” as “provocative” and an escalation of the nuclear arms race.  But Reagan did not listen to the naysayers and insisted that SDI proceed.  The number one foreign policy objective of the Soviet Union in the last years of its existence was to eliminate SDI.  The famous Reykjavik Summit of 1986 collapsed on this point, when Reagan would not trade SDI  to Gobachev and the Soviets in exchange for massive cuts in ballistic missiles.


            If the bulk of academic and diplomatic opinion was so averse to SDI and the very idea of missile defense was so “unworkable,” why then did the Soviet Union fight so long and adamantly against it?  Clearly, the Soviet Union was convinced the SDI would work and that we would achieve exactly what we set out to do.  Here is Apollo’s legacy:  Any technological challenge America undertakes, it can accomplish.  The reason this legacy had currency was the success of Apollo.  We had attempted and successfully achieved a technical goal—one so difficult and demanding, that it made virtually any similar goal seem equally achievable.  Moreover, this was a goal that the Soviets themselves had attempted and failed.  They reasoned that getting into a decade-long competition with America on SDI would similarly end in an American victory and would be a race that would bankrupt and destroy their system, as indeed, it did.


            President Kennedy started Apollo and the race to the Moon as a Cold War gambit; a way to demonstrate the superiority of a free and democratic way of life to that of our communist adversaries.  That goal was successfully achieved to a degree still not fully appreciated today.  The success of the Apollo program gave America something it did not realize was so important – technical credibility.  When President Reagan announced SDI twenty years later, the Soviets were against it, not because it was destabilizing and provocative, but because they thought we would succeed, rendering their vast military machine, assembled at great cost to their people and economy, obsolete in an instant.  Among other factors, this hastened the end of the Cold War in our favor.


            Space advocates often lament the lack of direction of today’s space program.  An unspoken concern by many who feel this way is the accompanying lack of determination and commitment in our current space program.  They look back wistfully on the glory days of Apollo, when esprit de corps was high, the work days were long and hard, and sleeves were rolled up and teeth were set in determination.  It was like a war then.  It was.  And we won it.