Was the Apollo Project an 'Aberration' for America?

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It was about 50 years ago -- May 25, 1961 -- that President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to commit to putting a man on the moon, launching the ambitious NASA effort known as Apollo. The conventional story about Apollo is triumphalist in the extreme. Apollo showed both our system's superiority to Soviet communism and was a great technoscientific success. Indeed, it is the very memory of Apollo's telegenic success that causes American politicians to invoke the rhetoric of Apollo anytime an engineering obstacle crosses their paths.

But, as underscored by a new essay in this week's Economist, the reality was always less glamorous than advertised. At a cost of $150 billion in 2010 dollars, the Apollo program didn't even finish out its scheduled flights. It was canceled a mere three years after the triumph of Neil Armstrong's first steps. Apollos 18, 19, and 20 never flew. Since then, the US space program has continued to send astronauts into low-earth orbit, but nothing has captured the imagination or budgetary slice of the moon shot. Even as it was happening, some scientists complained that too much of the nation's scientific ammunition was being fired into the air.

So, I find myself agreeing with the Economist in calling Apollo "a glorious one-off" that holds fewer lessons for the future that we want it to. They conclude:

If we can send a man to the moon, people ask, why can't we [fill in the blank]? Lyndon Johnson tried to build a "great society", but America is better at aeronautical engineering than social engineering. Mr Obama, pointing to competition from China, invokes a new "Sputnik moment" to justify bigger public investment in technology and infrastructure. It should not be a surprise that his appeals have gone unheeded. Putting a man on the moon was a brilliant achievement. But in some ways it was peculiarly un-American--almost, you might say, an aberration born out of the unique circumstances of the cold war. It is a reason to look back with pride, but not a pointer to the future.


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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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