On 20 July 1969, American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to land on the Moon, while their fellow Apollo 11 crew member, Michael Collins, orbited above. People around the world watched and listened to updates on the trip from the Earth to the Moon, and the landing itself made history as drawing the largest single audience, ever. Starting with the Mercury program, and then Gemini, NASA had worked for almost a decade to develop the science and engineering knowledge and skill, select and train crews, and demonstrate mastery of essential mission elements for a shot at the Moon. Apollo, with its three-astronaut crews, would be the final step in the process to land people on the Moon, and bring them home safely.
The Symbolic Value of Space Exploration in the Cold War
In a speech at Rice University in 1962, President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to consider the nation’s investment in the space race as an investment in the future good of humanity at large and in the broader moral context of the Cold War. While the “conquest” of space had significant implications for military purposes, Kennedy seems to say that it is its symbolic value that we ought to consider above all, writing:
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.
Kennedy’s aspirational imagery, of course, did little to assuage the very realistic fears that such endeavours would have tremendous human costs. Although America did of course, eventually watch Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, the outcome of the Apollo 11 mission was far from taken for granted. Richard Nixon’s staff drafted a never-delivered speech in case of a failure. Intended to assuage the anticipated public grief that would have accompanied the tragedy of such a loss, the brief message appeals to the timeless imagery of sailors lost at sea, locating their final resting place not beneath the waves but among the stars. In doing so, it asserts even in failure a certain kind of moral victory, asserting with a certain melancholy beauty: “Every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind. “