On 20 July 1969 an estimated 600 million people around the globe watched in awe as Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission is rightly hailed by many as a pinnacle of human invention.
But it’s easy to forget that the joy of scientific discovery was not the true reason behind the project—the more sinister motives are barely mentioned.
Instead of being about scientific development, space exploration was a product of an international arms race.
This “space race” was a battle of technological advancements between the two states that took place between 1955 and 1975.
The US government had long shown an interest in developing these technologies in order to give it the upper hand over rival nation states.
After the Second World War increased efforts were made to advance satellite technology.
The advantages of satellites as a tool for spying undetected on other military powers were recognised in a 1946 US government report which described “great military value” in satellites.
The space race further cemented the drive for advances that could be used in warfare.
The threat of perceived communism invading the West drove further research into the development of intercontinental missile systems.
The US ruling class was determined to win the space race—and would use whatever, or whoever, it took to succeed.
Aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun was critical to the development of space technology in the US. He had played a key role in Nazi Germany’s rocket development programme. At the end of the war, rather than being put on trial, he was whisked off to the US.
He helped the Nazis develope the deadly V-2 rocket—the world’s first long range guided ballistic missile. And in 1945 von Braun described how a rocket orbiting the planet could be used to observe “troop movements” below.
Von Braun wasn’t alone.
Around 1,600 scientists, engineers and technicians were secretly moved from Germany to the US through a state scheme called Operation Paperclip. Many were former members, and some were former leaders of the Nazis.
Space technology was intrinsically linked to the development of long-range highly powered missiles and used as cover for developing weapons of destruction.
The Cold War in particular cemented this need for technological domination.
In 1957 every country in the world was invited to launch a research satellite into Earth’s orbit as part of International Geophysics Year. The US saw this as the perfect opportunity to launch a spy satellite, and was confident that it would be successful. But Russia beat the US to it, launching the Sputnik I on 4 October 1957.
The Space Race escalated further when Russia sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit. He was the first person to go into space—a victory which terrified the US ruling class.
Democratic politician Lyndon B Johnson echoed many of their fears when he said he didn’t want to “go to sleep by a communist moon”.
Russian achievements in the field were seen as a massive threat by the US establishment.
Old stereotypes surrounding Russia’s scientific capabilities were still widely taken up by the US. The idea that Russia was a backwards agricultural state made the threat posed by the success of their space programme all the more ominous.
Because of the secretive nature of US weapons development, an agency was needed that would present a scientific basis for this research.
As a result, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Nasa) was created in 1958.
The US responded to Russia’s resounding successes in space travel by launching the Apollo missions in 1961. President John F Kennedy announced that the US would put a person on the moon within the decade.
The Apollo space programme ran between 1961 and 1972. Throughout this period, Nasa’s central aim was to beat Russia to the finish line.
Apollo 1 was launched on 21 February 1967 as a test flight, with the aim of reaching the moon’s orbit. But design flaws in the engine led to the death of the three crew.
After the tragedy of the first test flight, steps were made to ensure that future flights would be safer. But safety complications continued to be an issue for the project.
Apollo 8 was launched in December 1968 —even though the crew thought critical parts of the spacecraft weren’t ready.
The decision to go ahead was powered by the fear that Russia would attempt its own landing—and humiliate Nasa in the process. So the US pushed forward, cutting corners, rather than come second in the race.
It was a battle which prioritised speed over safety—and ultimately the lives of workers.
When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally landed on the moon, they left a plaque reading “We came in peace for all mankind.”
Eugene Kranz, one of the flight directors of Apollo 11 said in 2000 that the US had been engaged in an ideological battle “for the minds and hearts of the free people”.
As Kranz shows, people involved openly admitted that the missions were inspired primarily by a need to for dominance.
But Nasa’s Apollo programme was an illustration of how governments can pour resources into scientific programmes if the result benefits the state’s interest.
The effort required to pull off the Apollo programme spanned many different industries. From mathematicians and engineers to construction workers and caterers, the project brought together workers in a gigantic organised effort. Around 410,000 people were involved to some degree and the overall project cost £20.3 billion.
The Apollo programme was the largest project undertaken by the US scientific community since the development of the first atomic bomb—the Manhattan Project.
That spanned seven years from 1939 and 1946 and involved 130,000 people.
For many ordinary Americans, the brutality of the Vietnam War overshadowed any showboating by the state.
When Apollo 11 successfully landed back on earth, the future of space travel in the US looked bright. Plans were made to work towards a human mission to Mars.
But the Apollo programme was shut down just a few years later in 1975, allegedly due to a lack of public interest.
In reality, the aims of Apollo had been met.
It had achieved very little beyond an extravagant and expensive show of dominance by competing countries.
Half a century on, fascinating advances have been made in human’s understanding of space but Nasa has yet to top the moon landings.
Little progress was made after the Apollo programme was cancelled. It is only now that plans to send humans to Mars are an aim being worked towards in any meaningful way.
And instead of publicly?funded programmes, space has become the exclusive playground of super-rich billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.
Apollo didn’t bring an end to the Cold War or the Vietnam War. It also didn’t herald a new dawn where technological solutions could solve all of society’s problems.
But space exploration managed to engage millions of people inspired by the apparently limitless potential of human creativity and technological development.
It showed how capitalist states are willing and able to pour seemingly endless resources to assert their military and technological dominance.
Impressive though the Apollo programme is, it was rooted in a nationalistic defence of capitalism.
Under capitalism, every scientific innovation is based around the interests of governments or big business.
So humans could explore space—but only because there was a wider drive to war and demand for better weapon technology.
Under socialism, scientific development would be based on what is socially useful—not what suits the rich.
With human creativity and curiosity its only limit, a socialist society could aim for the stars.