The Apollo Program and American “Culture”

History through a prism - and not a particularly clear one.

History through a prism – and not a particularly clear one.

No Requiem For The Space Age by Matthew Tribbe looks at the culture of American society and how it reacted to the achievements of the Apollo program. Tribbe’s book, drawn from his Ph.D. dissertation “The Rocket and the Tarot: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture at the Dawn of the Seventies,” is both interesting and infuriating – interesting in that it collates much of the contemporary Luddite, anti-space rhetoric all in one place and infuriating for the same reason. The author’s thesis is that “informed opinion” at the time of Apollo held that it was significant, but no one knew why. Tribbe accepts as gospel many of the same tropes that analysts assumed then (and presumably still do) but more significantly, he attributes more credibility to the critics of Apollo than they merit, then or now.

The book is organized by chapter, with each viewing the Apollo lunar landings through the prism of various sub-groups: East Coast intelligentsia, media (print, audio and visual), the bohemian “alternative lifestyle” groups (obsessed over by many in the media), and finally, the general working and voting public. Tribbe makes the common assumption that Apollo ended because “people lost interest in going to the Moon,” even though he quotes public opinion surveys collated by Roger Launius that in fact, the American people were never very interested in lunar exploration to begin with. Tribbe claims to understand that Apollo was not a great leap into the cosmos but rather, a geopolitical contest with implications that were very much Earth-bound, yet seems perplexed that despite the success of Apollo, it was dead-end for space exploration. If he understood the former point, he would realize that Apollo was never about space exploration.

The most disturbing feature of this book is the importance afforded to the many voices of discord and complaint about the Apollo program. I am annoyed not by his coverage of them (they are after all, part of the historical record) but by the elevated significance Tribbe assigns to them and their place in society. Most large collective undertakings have their critics, but for historical significance, what matters is their net effect on the undertaking in question – was it successful or not? In the case of Apollo, what clearly was successful was that we accomplished our national goal on schedule and beat the Soviets to the Moon. What Tribbe does not explore (or does not understand) is the very tangible benefit America achieved by winning the Moon race.

Some view the Apollo Moon landings solely as a “stunt” – a demonstration of American technological prowess. In this view, the lunar landings achieved little except for global public relations. While this aspect of the program is true, it certainly is not the entire story. The real value of Apollo was that it demonstrated to the Soviets both our technical abilities and our national resolve. A human lunar mission is an enormously difficult technical undertaking, something that the Soviets themselves had seriously attempted and failed to accomplish. That failure, underscored by America’s success, led the Soviets (and other aggressive regimes) to conclude that Americans could achieve any technological goal that they set as their goal. A decade later, to defend America and our allies against nuclear annihilation, President Ronald Reagan announced an effort to develop a shield in space. Many of the same American intelligentsia who thought Apollo to be “silly” loudly proclaimed the idea of a ballistic missile defense system as ludicrous and unworkable, calling it “Star Wars” and labeling Reagan an out-of-control “foreign policy cowboy.” However, the Soviets took “Star Wars” development very seriously. In fact, an opportunity for a major breakthrough in nuclear arms control was missed at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 solely because Reagan would not trade away SDI for a proposed elimination of Soviet nuclear missiles. With prospects of Reagan’s “Star Wars” neutralizing their nuclear arsenal, the Soviets commenced on a self-imposed race to develop their own missile defense system, which in turn sped up their nation’s eventual fall into financial collapse.

Why would the Soviets have insisted on such a provision at Reykjavik if SDI were merely some cowboy fantasy? Tribbe completely misses this concrete, substantive benefit of Apollo – American technical credibility and the power it wielded. In his mind, although the Apollo “stunt” was successful, it had no lasting effect on the state of the Cold War and even less effect on long-term spaceflight (to which it was only incidentally relevant). In fairness, this is a common perception in the current academic community; I simply find it a pity that someone who has studied this period so intently could miss a development of such an obvious significance.

Which brings me to my last point about No Requiem –Tribbe’s over-reading of the lasting significance of the counter-culture and its criticism of both Apollo and American society. It is certainly true that many über-sophisticates and literati were disdainful or openly contemptuous of the Apollo program, and of the people who made it all work. Thomas Paine, Administrator of NASA at the time of Apollo, famously described its success as the “triumph of the squares.” This clearly got the goat of the chattering classes, who to this day continue to spin tales of massive quantities of money “wasted” on things like human space missions.

In part, Apollo and the space program in general was a victim of its own success. The famous and beautiful “Earthrise” picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew became an icon for the burgeoning environmental movement, which as Tribbe demonstrates, quickly took an anti-technology, Luddite turn from which it has never fully recovered or disavowed. Lest you think that such a development is irrelevant to current issues with our civil space program, I note that Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren (who reportedly has had a significant role in the gutting of civil space under the current administration) is a disciple of Malthusian overpopulation alarmist and eco-loon Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. Thus, one of the extremist “green” movement’s own is helping to set the current U.S. civil space agenda.

While Tribbe commits the common blunder of assigning nearly all of the Sixties generation to the bin of the counter-culture, nearly all of my high school classmates in flyover country (Kansas City, MO) were normal, middle-class teens, more interested in cars and girls than Vietnam protests. Moreover, virtually all of my friends and personal acquaintances went on to finish their college degrees, got ordinary jobs in the trades and professions, and married and raised families. The idea that there existed a rebellious generation that rejected the norms and values of American society is a myth perpetrated by a small group that engaged in these things (then and now). Although a minority, they have disproportionate representation in the media and academia, and thus play an outsized role in educating others. Those of us privileged to be alive at the time of humanity’s first steps onto another world remember it clearly and distinctly, recalling both the excitement and elation of those distant times with fondness.

The public did not “lose interest” in Apollo – it never had more than a passing interest in Apollo to begin with. Naturally, the first lunar landing drew unprecedented attention, as befitting any such event. But most people got neither too excited nor too offended about subsequent trips to the Moon. As with most historically noteworthy things, their importance at the time was not well understood, but that should not detract from their significance. In this country, things happen not because an outraged or excited public demands it, but because a few key people see an unmet need and take it upon themselves to address it. America has a nuclear navy today not because there was a grass-roots public movement to create one, but because a few visionaries, such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, saw the need for such a development and doggedly took the necessary steps to implement it.

Tribbe’s book is a concise and comprehensive compendium of negative, critical contemporary opinion about the Apollo program and a good reference to the historian for this purpose. But it is a distorted view of both the legacy of the space program and of America in the 1960s. It is illustrative of what the academy thinks of this country and would have others believe is an accurate reflection of those times. This is the past through a glass, and darkly – incomplete, distorted, and unreliable.

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17 Responses to The Apollo Program and American “Culture”

  1. billgamesh says:

    Thought I usually side with those who dispute the idea that Reagan’s star wars program drove the Soviets into bankruptcy, and in a similar vein do not side with those who hold that dropping the bombs on Japan ended that war, I will not go there on this forum. Dr. Spudis is essentially correct that military spending was a principle contributing factor in the soviet collapse. The roots of that collapse go all the way back to the immense suffering of the soviet states in the famines and purges of the 1930’s continuing into the second world war. During the recovery from the depression the U.S. went from one strength to another and in one sense the end result can be seen in the Moon landing.

    The U.S. space program is an extremely complex subject and requires a great deal of basic knowledge concerning physics (let alone all the other factors) to even begin to understand why it ended with Apollo 17. The extent that so many people are deluded by SpaceX advertising is proof of this.

    That the far left cries tears of “wasted” tax dollars is perfectly matched on the the right over the countless billions poured into the defense industry- both make wildly exaggerated claims and a distracted citizenry without the time or inclination to seek the truth has zero chance of making any sense of all the hype. But people must take sides or be caught in the middle and the result is a uninformed population with a small percentage reading books that push the author’s own wishful thinking instead of a complete appreciation of the facts. People will statistically take the lazy path and will accept a popular culture poem about poverty or a profitable defense industry magic slogan like “support the troops” before they will question, try and sift through the trash, and reconsider. And that is where we are.

  2. Joe says:

    An interesting review.

    Along those lines I found this small 3 character scene from the new movie Interstellar rather chilling.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I’ve been sending the link to this scene around to various people. It nicely captures the neo-Luddite attitude of space critics.

      • billgamesh says:

        Wow…..that was really powerful.
        So how can a space advocate possibly criticize the private space scam without being accused of being a neo-Luddite? I have been banned from commenting on 3 different forums for daring to blaspheme against the flexible path. Incredibly frustrating.

      • Joe says:

        “I’ve been sending the link to this scene around to various people. It nicely captures the neo-Luddite attitude of space critics.”

        So have I, for that reason and also because I am amazed that such a scene made it into a big budget action movie.

        Now I will have to cut them slack for whatever liberties they may take with the basic principles of physics.

        • billgamesh says:

          Unfortunately the most probably method of star travel does not lend itself well to box office success. Gigantic “slow boats” at a tenth of the velocity of light with people frozen for the trip is what Jules Verne would have predicted along with heavier than air- aircraft and submarines. Hard to make that into a success like “The Dark Knight.”

  3. Vladislaw says:

    Zombies? That’s his opening? Freakin’ ZOMBIES?

    Dr. Spudis, we may disagree at times but man I have to agree with you here … this is tripe.

    I took the opportunity of “look inside” at amazon and read about 30-40 pages. When the author did somehow manage a sentence I could agree with it would immediatly be followed up with about 20 sentences of “where the hell did that come from?”

    After reading those pages I started just flashing through pages specifically looking for the words transportation system. I would have to read the entire book I imagine to find out if it is used but it sure stuck me that the author did not seem to understand that it was a transportation system being written about.

    I was 12 years old at the time of the first landing was a space cadet ever since, I did not experience the space program the way this author portrays it at all.

  4. Until 1957, space travel was viewed by most Americans and American politicians as just a fantasy for adolescent boys who liked to attend the popular Sci Fi movies of the day. But Sputnik came as a shock to the American people and to its politicians with a powerful global political impact that even surprised the Soviet Union. And the Soviets continued to exploit their technological lead in space and its global political impact– eventually sending the first humans into orbit.

    Kennedy’s commitment to the Moon was an almost immediate response to the Soviet Union placing the first human into orbit because no one in the US at the time really understood what the highly secretive Soviet Union’s long term goals were in space. No one knew if the Soviet Union would try to claim the Moon as the the exclusive territory of the Soviet Union once they landed cosmonauts there. And no one knew if the Soviet Union intended to militarize the moon, perhaps placing nuclear missiles on the lunar surface.

    It was not until 1967, when the US and the Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty, preventing any nation from placing nuclear weapons in space or on the Moon or claiming the Moon or any territory on the Moon as their own, that things began to change politically in space between the US and the Soviet Union. This greatly reduced the political urgency of the US commitment to put men on the Moon while also allowing some to question why the US was going to the Moon in the first place.

    While Kubrick and Clarke’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, made it pretty clear that the Moon would be part of human civilization’s cultural expansion beyond the Earth, the Apollo astronauts at that time seemed rather confused, IMO, as to why they were going to the Moon. Unfortunately, Apollo astronauts became much more articulate about the long term reasons for going to the Moon and establishing a permanent human presence there– only after the Apollo program was over!


    • billgamesh says:

      “And no one knew if the Soviet Union intended to militarize the moon, perhaps placing nuclear missiles on the lunar surface.”

      Nuclear missiles based on the Moon did not make much sense then or now for many reasons. The idea was used as a scare tactic. However, spaceships carrying nuclear missiles do make a great deal of sense now since the unavoidable cost of the replacing U.S. nuclear force is going to be “astronomical.” ICBM’s in stationary silos have long been vulnerable to a first strike, the fleet of bombers we kept in the air 24/7 has long since been stood down, leaving missile submarines as the only credible leg of the triad. These boats will have to be replaced soon.

      Unfortunately the probability that these vessels will in the near future no longer be able to hide is extremely high. Missile submarines that cannot hide are even more vulnerable than land-based missile silos because the weapons are concentrated on a relatively small number of platforms.

      Spaceships in deep space many months or years travel from Earth are effectively immune from being destroyed and also far less likely to launch in a panic as on Earth with only a few minutes available before a possible first strike. The cost? Considering such Spaceships would replace the hundreds of billions of dollars required for new missile sites, bombers, and submarines, we may break even.

      Such a nuclear basing strategy would first require a Moon base and would also drag all the nuclear powers kicking and screaming into space. These spaceships would provide planetary protection and effectively remove the human race from the endangered species list in regards to an asteroid or comet impact.

      • Of course, the Soviet Union never even made it to the Moon. But owning the Moon and deploying nuclear missiles on the lunar surface would have prevented America from having a complete first strike capability over the Soviet Union since an Earth launched missile would require at least 12 hours to reach the lunar surface.

        Would it have been costly? Of course it would. But the US has an annual military budget (in today’s dollars) that’s been over $400 billion a year since the early 1960s and the Soviet Union had a similar budget. Such expenditures dwarf NASA’s current `$8 billion a year human space flight related budget.

        Of course, one of the principal reasons that President Eisenhower created the civilian space program (NASA) in the first place was to prevent the US military and the— military industrial complex– from spending astronomical amounts of money militarizing America’s space program.


  5. Perhaps a more useful study would be an examination of attitudes about Apollo in contemporary times.

  6. Dear Dr. Spudis,

    I hate to say this as a newcomer to your blog, but I think we’re spending entirely too much time “cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle”.

    Of course there are going to be books like Tribbe’s — controversy sells, and not just in respect to the space program: “Jesus was an alien”; “Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary”; “There is no historical Jesus”; and so on.

    I would much rather hear about what you and your compatriots at Moon Express are doing to get us back to the moon, and what we will be doing once we get there!

    G. W. (Glenn) Smith

  7. billgamesh says:

    “-yet seems perplexed that despite the success of Apollo, it was dead-end for space exploration. If he understood the former point, he would realize that Apollo was never about space exploration.”

    Much like the present new space mob’s collective cognitive deficit at confusing space tourism with human beings actually leaving the Earth’s gravitational field. The last time time that happened was 12:33 AM Eastern Standard Time (EST) on December 7, 1972.

    “-the crew of Apollo 17 left the moon with a blast from their service propulsion engine at 8:42 p.m. EST on December 16. A routine transearth coast brought them back to a landing about 300 kilometers (200 miles) east of Pago Pago at 2:25 p.m. EST on December 19, 1972. Apollo’s exploration of the moon, “one of the most ambitious and successful endeavors of man,” was over.”

    That was the end of the first space age and everything since fails to meet that definition of leaving Earth. Space tourism is not about space exploration though this “industry” has sucked up several billion dollars by way of political contributions and deceiving the gullible .

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