Forty years ago Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. I was only five years old on 20 July 1969 but I still remember the thrill of staying up to watch the event on television.
I enthusiastically followed subsequent moon landings, fully believing them to be in the spirit of the message left by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—“We came in peace for all mankind.”
Yet the real impetus for the lunar landings was the drive of capitalism towards war. Wernher von Braun, the architect of the Saturn V rocket that carried the astronauts to the moon had previously designed the V2 missile in the Second World War that killed 2,770 Britons and left 21,000 wounded.
Such details were seen as less important than Von Braun’s technical prowess when he was recruited by the US government.
In an interview from 1945 Von Braun envisaged an orbiting rocket observing “troop movements” on the earth below. In 1946 a confidential US government report drew attention to the “great military value” of satellites.
Yet it was the Russians who initially dominated the space race. The successful launch of the Sputnik satellite on 4 October 1957 sent a tremor through the US establishment. In 1961 Russia again pipped the US to the post, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to blast into orbit.
Only one goal seemed to be left. In May 1961, a month after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, President Kennedy vowed that the US would put a man on the moon within a decade.
Safety considerations became secondary in the rush to get there first. The crew of the first mission in the moon programme, Apollo 1, never got off the ground – they were incinerated during a test run on the launch pad. A spark from wiring developed into a raging inferno fuelled by a deadly 100 percent oxygen atmosphere.
Even the Apollo 11 mission, which made the historic landing, came close to disaster. It was only Armstrong switching to manual control and using his great skill as a pilot that averted a crash landing caused by a computer malfunction and an overshoot in the automatic flight trajectory.
The lunar landings still stand as a measure of humankind’s technological achievements. But they were of limited value from a scientific point of view.
Perhaps most surprising is how quickly the excitement over the landings dissipated. One reason was that the Vietnam War was in full swing. The moon landings were meant to demonstrate the US’s overwhelming technological superiority. Yet here it was being trounced by a tiny Third World country.
The Apollo programme also reflected the optimism of the post-war boom. In the 1960s it did not seem far-fetched to imagine that soon there would be permanent bases on the moon and manned trips to Mars.
But such plans assumed that the capitalist system would keep on growing. They were soon shelved with the onset of economic crisis in 1973.
Despite, or maybe because of the scale of the current crisis, US president Barack Obama recently said, “It is a high priority of mine to restore that sense of wonder that space can provide”. Putting a person on Mars could be the goal of a new space race.
Yet such a race would undoubtedly become a proxy for military competition between nations. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s classic trilogy of sci-fi novels, Mars, the planet is colonised. Class divisions soon emerge and a successful socialist revolution takes place. Now that really would give the term “Red Planet” a new meaning!