Fifty years ago, the United States cured a maddening case of FOMO by sending American citizens to walk on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps on an extraterrestrial terrain, simultaneously collecting rock samples for scientific study and soothing the wounded hearts of millions of Americans who felt inadequate compared to the Soviet Union. An eventful 50 years have elapsed since Neil Armstrong delivered his iconic phrase to commemorate his moonwalk. In the decades since Apollo 11, mankind has made several leaps — and suffered several falls as well. The last half-century has yielded nine U.S. presidents, several wars, a defining terrorist attack, many ‘firsts’ for leadership and success, and increased political polarization. NASA has changed as well. Originally created to display American soft power during the Cold War, NASA has since served as a backdrop for several decades of American innovation and metamorphosis. NASA remains influential in American foriegn policy today, but now the organization facilitates tentative multinational cooperation rather than competition.
The Space Program as Soft Power
Russia launched the first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1957. In 1958, the United States government established NASA. Though the U.S. had supported aeronautics departments before, NASA was endowed with a $100 million annual budget and multiple major research laboratories as an immediate response to Russia’s satellite success. During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR never fought directly. Instead, they poured resources and support into opposing forces during multiple proxy wars and rushed to develop new and dangerous weapons. Both countries relied on soft power — which involves projecting influence through cultural or economic means — to assert their dominance on the postwar stage. The 1959 “kitchen debate” between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon provides one of the more famous examples of U.S. / USSR tensions. The event entailed an ideological debate between both leaders, who were standing in the middle of a model American kitchen furnished with state-of-the-art appliances. Soft power posturing during the Cold War consisted of both nations attempting to prove to the rest of the world that they were the most advanced in terms of technology and offered a higher quality of life to their citizens. For the United States, the launch of Sputnik represented a significant loss in their soft power offensive. They could flaunt their shiny kitchen appliances, but not even a spotless stovetop could lessen the sting of the Soviet satellite supremacy. Thus began a decade of rapid technological growth as the U.S. attempted to not only match the USSR but surpass its scientific feats.
In 1961, speaking at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy promised millions of Americans watching rapt from television sets across the country that the U.S. would land a human on the moon within the decade. Surprisingly, U.S. scientists accomplished this goal when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed their spacecraft on the moon in 1969. The moon landing was a landmark event for science and space exploration, but it could not have succeeded without the extraordinary amount of money and support that the government heaped onto the space program. Between 1960 and 1973, the United States invested about $28 billion ($288 billion today when adjusted for inflation) in sending humans to the moon. While space exploration is instrumental in providing valuable knowledge about the universe and Earth’s history, $288 billion could solve several of the most pressing problems facing the world today. For example, in 2013 UNESCO published data stating that $54 billion per year would provide basic education for all children in over forty lower-income countries within two years. That’s not even half of the cost of the space race. The United States has enjoyed enormous scientific benefits from its investment in the space program, but NASA’s founding reflected Cold War anxiety far more than an innate curiosity about the universe. If the USSR had projected soft power through the eradication of global hunger or malaria rather than space exploration, the world might look very different.
The Space Program as a Source of National Pride
While it is true that the money spent on the space program could have served other purposes, we should not regret the benefits and knowledge we have reaped from space exploration. In addition to revealing the United States’ technological advances to the world, the space program also revived American national pride. Threatened by the spread of communism and the difficulties involved in transitioning from a wartime economy back to peace, Americans needed an unprecedented triumph to restore faith in their nation. To raise public morale, in his 1961 “moon speech” President Kennedy had encouraged Americans to pursue the challenge of going to the moon so they could regain a position of superiority in the world. He spoke to the crowd about the space program, still in its infancy, and told them to be proud of how far they had already come — to anticipate “the growth of our science and education” which “will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers.”
Unlike other scientific arms of the government, NASA was not created in response to a genuine scientific problem, but to alleviate Cold War anxiety. The National Institute of Health, for example, was established with the concrete purpose of studying infectious diseases and their threats to public health. In contrast, NASA fulfilled both a scientific need for knowledge and an ideological need to keep up with a global competitor and inspire American citizens. So far, NASA has met both of these goals. Scientists have learned much about the composition and history of the universe from NASA projects, and according to a CBS News poll taken in 2019, 45 percent of Americans surveyed have never experienced an event that made them as proud as the moon landing did in 1969.
I am hardly a devoted American. For me, the flag is just a piece of cloth rather than a representation of the values I support. I don’t even know all the words to the United States’s national anthem. But when I visited the Johnson Space Center for the first time, I was proud to be an American. There are many events in American history to which I am averse, but the space program is not one of them. I love science and love studying the unknown, and it makes me genuinely proud of the United States that so much valuable information has come from our satellites, missions, and telescopes. I am honored to be from the America of the Hubble Telescope, the moon landing, and a continued effort to explore the universe: a nation that approaches challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
The Space Program as a Tentative Multinational Cooperation
As Cold War tensions decreased, NASA adopted a new role in facilitating both scientific discovery and international cooperation. Since the Cold War, the relationship between the United States and Russia has been strained, but even as Washington and Moscow argue about Russia’s actions in other European nations, American astronauts board Russian Soyuz rockets to travel to the International Space Station (ISS). Even if peace doesn’t always seem attainable for those on the ground, the success of the ISS proves that multinational unity is possible given the right conditions and training. So far, astronauts from eighteen different countries have spent time on the ISS, providing not only an opportunity to share scientific ideas with others, but also a chance to cross cultural boundaries. Since Russia remains an important player in the global space program, NASA astronauts receive training in the Russian language and spend time with Russian families. Cultural and political barriers that seem difficult to cross in our current geopolitical climate fall away in the weightlessness of space. While the ISS is an obvious example of international cooperation in the space program, global partnerships are not rare. Even on American space missions, the rockets and equipment represent a mosaic of international technological development.
For example, the ISS was sent to space in pieces and assembled in orbit because it was too large for a rocket to carry all at once. Completing such a complex project required the cooperation of several different space agencies. Scientists in the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, and Europe overcame cultural and geographical boundaries to construct the ISS, which continues to house astronauts from around the world. While cooperation in space is relatively well-known, research conducted from the surface also necessitates an international partnership. The search for habitable planets outside our solar system involves networks of telescopes operated from multiple locations. Since each telescope collects a limited amount of data, scientists from several nations must share their findings in order to produce a clear picture of the planets they are studying. Even as our technology continues to improve, space exploration has not become an endeavor for any individual nation. In 2020, NASA plans to send a rover to Mars that will be built in the United States, but will also include equipment from several different European nations. The data from this mission will come from the combined effort of scientists and agencies on multiple continents. In an era characterized by worsening political polarization and increasing global trends of racism and xenophobia, multinational cooperation with a common goal can seem out of reach. Fortunately, the efforts of the space program prove that it is possible to interact with other nations in a manner that is both productive and beneficial. The knowledge we have gained from space exploration cannot be attributed to anything besides a global cooperation. In the 50 years since the moon landing, the space program has become a symbol for American values, a source of national pride, and a recognized facilitator of multinational cooperation. For individual Americans like myself, the space program is a reminder that we can evolve and become better. The agency that was created to defeat Russia during the Cold War sent American astronauts into space on Russian rockets just decades later. What once represented our fear of losing our footing in a tense geopolitical climate now affords opportunities to collaborate with others in a quest for knowledge. Though President Trump wishes to establish a “space force” to defend the United States, Americans should not forget that space is characterized by cooperation and progress. The space program is worth the decades of hard work and government spending because we have achieved an understanding of the universe that once seemed unattainable. Fifty years ago, the world was inspired by the moon landing as a product of American ingenuity; since then, the space program has come so far. It is still a source of soft power and national pride, but it is also so much more. Hopefully the next 50 years will be even brighter.