Space enthusiasts believed that Apollo’s giant leap for mankind was just a first step. Star Trek, which began broadcasting at the same time Apollo was getting off the ground, seemed like a prophecy. Surely we’d be seeing weekly flights to the Moon by the early Seventies, as von Braun had envisioned.
Remember, it had taken a mere 11 years from the Wright brothers’ first flight to the first commercial plane trip. The time span between the first transcontinental airmail service to the establishment of the first transcontinental airline? Three years. The span between the Soviets’ first rocket and the Americans’ Moon landing? Twelve years. With that kind of momentum, what would keep us from continuing straight on to the next planet?
President Kennedy had set Apollo in motion to beat the Russians. As long as we were competing with the Soviet Union, the space program could ensure generous funding. But when the Cold War ended, the political fuel for space exploration began to diminish. The historian William Burrows argues that Apollo had been undertaken “for exactly the wrong reason.”
Perhaps. On the other hand, maybe it was exactly the right reason for the time. Apollo provided a momentous, peaceful demonstration of American systems at work, in order to persuade other nations to choose our systems. And maybe that still is a good reason for an ambitious space program. Aren’t we competing today to influence the peoples of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa? Aren’t tyrants and religious extremists using our tarnished reputation against us?
Besides, one would expect that a quest of Apollo’s magnitude, attempted by a democracy, would involve politics. The question isn’t whether the motives for Apollo were sufficiently noble. The question is whether motives other than war, hot or cold, will drive space policy in the future. And whether we will understand the historical certainty of human settlement of space and choose to lead the way or watch others take the lead.