Why Land on the Moon?

In 1961, when President Kennedy declared that America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, critics complained about the cost. In response, two scientists argued that the endeavor shouldn't be thought of in terms of budgets or even science, but rather in terms of pursuing a "great adventure" on behalf of mankind.

"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. — President Kennedy, speech at Rice University, September 12, 1962 (Neil Armstrong / NASA / AP)

Congress has been asked to provide $5.7 billion for the programs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the current fiscal year, roughly six cents of every federal tax dollar. This level of expenditure has produced demands for a reevaluation of the space program. Critics ask whether the exploration of the solar system is a valid enterprise for the United States to undertake at this time; or, granting the ultimate importance of the step, whether it must be carried out at the present pace.

The focal point of the criticism is the Apollo project for manned lunar landing, which absorbs $3.7 billion out of the $5.7 billion in the projected NASA budget. The Apollo budget which has produced the current outcry stems from a decision made in 1961. At that time the man-in-space program was expanded beyond the limited Mercury effort to a full-scale attack on the problems of manned flight to the moon and planets. The impetus for the decision came from a series of Soviet achievements in February and March of 1961, when the U.S.S.R. launched in rapid succession four spacecraft, each weighing 10,000 pounds or more. These were followed on April 12, 1961, by the successful orbiting of Major Gagarin in a 14,000-pound spacecraft and his safe recovery after a circuit of the Earth in one hour and 47 minutes. Thus, the world saw the Soviet Union achieve man’s first flight in space.

On May [25], 1961, President Kennedy laid the Soviet challenge before the American people. He urged the nation to commit itself to the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the decade was out. The president’s message suggested the reasons underlying this recommendation: we faced the gloomy prospect of standing second to the U.S.S.R. in manned flight for years to come; the manned lunar landing would be the first major space achievement in which the U.S. effort could reach its full strength; a vigorous effort could achieve a manned lunar landing by the end of this decade; and if the United States set 1970 as its target date for the lunar landing, it would have a good chance to reach this goal before the U.S.S.R.

President Kennedy asked for a careful examination of the proposed commitment: “I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment … There is no sense in agreeing, or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens.”

In July 1961, the Congress voted overwhelmingly for the funds requested to move the space program into high gear. In 1962 Congress reaffirmed its support by doubling the budget of the previous year. Now, in 1963, we see the substantial fruits of our increased labors in space. The manned-flight program is rapidly advancing through its intermediate objectives toward the milestone of the lunar landing. The space-flight program as a whole has produced a great volume of scientific research, as well as economically important applications to weather forecasting and communications.

At the same time, the Russians continue to show great vigor in their man-in-space program. The single-orbit flight of Gagarin was followed rapidly by [Gherman] Titov’s 17-orbit mission, by other multi-orbit flights, and by the formidable accomplishment of a near rendezvous between pairs of cosmonauts. The Soviet science program in space has also been stepped up to a high level after a lull of some years, with 18 Kosmos scientific satellites, a lunar probe, and a Mars probe launched during the last year. There appears to be no letup in the Soviet space challenge to the United States.

What, then, is the basis for the questioning of the commitment to the expanded U.S. space program?

THOUGHTFUL critics, concerned over the allocation of limited national resources, ask whether this is a good way in which to spend funds that might otherwise be used for the betterment of man’s lot on the surface of the Earth. Could some of the money going into space research be diverted into other programs of public interest—medical research, education, housing, technical aid to emerging nations—a variety of projects contributing to the welfare of our society?

While science plays an important role in lunar exploration, it was never intended to be the primary objective.

This question implies that public funds are transferable. However, the reduction of support for one national program does not carry a guarantee of increased support for other projects. President Kennedy remarked recently, “Some people say we should take the money we are putting into space and put it into housing or education … My judgment is that what would happen would be that they would cut the space program and you would not get additional funds for education.”

But if space money cannot readily be rerouted into other channels, that negative consideration in itself is not a reason for these large expenditures. What are the positive values which we derive from this investment?

The nation can expect the following consequences of the space program: the fruits of research into fundamental problems of science; economic benefits from the application of satellites to communications and weather forecasting; long-range technological benefits accruing to industry; a general stimulus to science and to science education; and, most important, the security which comes from U.S. leadership in space …

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 …

However we may try to break the program down into its elements and to attempt a detailed balancing of debits and credits, the fact remains that the space effort is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a great adventure and a great enterprise, not only for the United States but for all humanity. We have the power and resources to play a leading role in this effort, and it is inconceivable that we should stand aside.

Six weeks after the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth, and three weeks after Americans responded tepidly with Alan Shepard’s suborbital jaunt, President Kennedy declared a national mission. Speaking to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he set a goal of landing an American on the moon by decade’s end. If any flourish of policy captured the dynamism of Kennedy’s presidential style, it was this.

When The Atlantic devoted much of an issue to the ensuing controversy over racing into space, a pair of NASA scientists took up the defense for the quest. Robert Jastrow, a theoretical physicist, ran the agency’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Homer E. Newell, a mathematician, was in charge of NASA’s office of space sciences.

The moon landing in 1969—“one giant leap for mankind”—burnished Kennedy’s legacy.