Why Land on the Moon

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The television image of Neil Armstrong on the moon erased a decade of debate about the value of the Apollo program from the public consciousness.

The image of a human bouncing around with an American flag against the overwhelming stillness of the grey and black provided the most romantic moment in science. Ever since that moment, Apollo has been lauded as the paragon of a scientific program. In eight years, it took the American space effort from second place (to the Russians, of course) to the moon. Whole new industries formed. Expertise and machines were built. People were trained. Science advanced.

But before the Eagle landed, Apollo was a bitterly debated subject. Congress was inconsistently enthusiastic about the program and Columbia sociologist Amitai Etzioni even wrote a book questioning its level of funding called Moondoggle. In the pages of the journal Science, scientists went back and forth over the merits of manned exploration.

The most pointed criticism was that robotic explorers -- that is to say unmanned spacecraft -- could carry out any reasonable space science program at a mere fraction of the cost of the Apollo mission. As MIT space historian David Mindell once pointed out to me, "You look at the stuff that the Apollo astronauts did and it was crude manual labor."

To which defenders of Apollo replied, "Oh, you thought Apollo was about science?"

Which brings us to our In the Archives article for today. In it, NASA scientists Robert Jastrow and Homer E. Newell lay out the argument for Apollo in an August 1963 article, "Why Land on the Moon?" While it argues for supporting Apollo, what's most fascinating about it is how defensive Jastrow and Newell feel the need to be.

Faced with scientific opposition, they repair to flag and country, arguing that their opponents depend on "the premise that science should have top priority in the space program," when they don't think that it should.

This is a startlingly clear reminder that Apollo was about beating the Russians and its scientific payload was just a nice collateral benefit. And maybe that's why Armstrong's landing really was the high-point. Most people don't remember this, but Apollo was canceled before completing its scheduled slate of missions. Once the deed was done, the program lost its focus, and eventually its funding.

Here we read Jastrow and Newell's political defense of Apollo:

But scientists who see the benefits of space exploration are opposed to the timetable of the man-in-space program, and particularly the schedule set for landing men on the moon. They suggest that the objectives of space research can be realized by robot instruments, with the manned-flight program carried out at a slower pace.

This question requires a further exploration of the motives underlying the United States space effort. Is it primarily a scientific program? Or is it motivated by a broader concern with national interests and national goals? Looking back to the overwhelming support given the new space program by the Congress in 1961, it seems clear that this support was not tendered for purely scientific reasons, but came from a deep-seated conviction that the expanded program will make an important contribution to our future welfare and security. We believe that this is the reason why the people have supported the enlarged space program and the Congress has voted for it. That brings us to the point on which we take serious issue with some of our scientific colleagues, who complain, "The scientific exploration of the moon has been accorded a secondary priority in the lunar program." This remark is based on the premise that science should have top priority in the space program. However, while science plays an important role in lunar exploration, it was never intended to be the primary objective of that project. The impetus of the lunar program is derived from its place in the long-range U.S. program for exploration of the solar system. The heart of that program is man in space, the extension of man's control over his physical environment. The science and technology of space flight are ancillary developments which support the main thrust of manned exploration, while at the same time they bring valuable returns to our economy and our culture. The science which we do in space provides the equivalent of the gold and spices recovered from earlier voyages of exploration. It is the return to the taxpayer for his investment in his nation's future. But the driving force of the program is not in scientific research alone, valuable though that may be in the long run. Thus, the pace of the program must be set not by the measured patterns of scientific research, but by the urgencies of the response to the national challenge.

IN these remarks we express our views as citizens confident in the destiny of this nation. Now, as scientists, we wish to turn to the scientific objectives of the lunar program.

Read the rest of Jastrow and Newell's "Why Land on the Moon?"

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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