At the outset of the Cold War, facing an existential threat, the American leaders chose space as a psychological weapon.
In retrospect, we can think of the problem of the Cold War in the form of a Q&A:
Q: How can America prove its capitalist democracy to be superior to Communism?
A: Defeat the Communists in battle.
This was the obvious, but foolish, answer. The advent of the nuclear age made that answer self-destructive. The psychological war finally became clear as the best alternative. So the question changed:
Q: How can America win over the neutral nations’ people?
The question hearkens back to the American Civil War. As the saying goes, President Lincoln did not just win the war, he won the argument. Kennedy’s task, as he saw it, was to win the argument over which system of government, which ideology, was superior. This meant more than putting forth an attractive-sounding political philosophy, and even more than having Hollywood make better movies. To win the argument with the Soviet Union, America needed a single, obvious proof, instantly understandable by every culture, and indisputable by any rival propaganda machine. Something awe-inspiring, heroic, the product of an irresistible culture.
The idea that the best way to beat the Soviets wasn’t with the military but by accomplishing a miracle was far from obvious. In fact, it was brilliant. Kennedy’s speech before a crowd of 35,000 in the Rice University stadium makes this key aim obvious. America had been a lead pioneer in the industrial revolution and the nuclear age. The next big frontier, space, had the “eyes of the world” upon it, he said; “and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”
Several months earlier, Kennedy made the case even more overtly to Congress:
“Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the worldbetween freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”
The impact of this adventure on minds: The Apollo mission was one of the greatest thought experiments in history. How well it worked can be judged by historians and social scientists. But the Moon landings were celebrated around the world, and they continue to reverberate. To this day, when I speak with people in other nations about the American space program, they say how “we” landed on the Moon. Not “Americans.” All we humans.