“The Eagle has landed.”
Astronaut Neil Armstrong transmitted that statement on July 20, 1969, from the surface of the Moon. His eloquent words fittingly confirmed achievement of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 commitment of the United States to get to the Moon.
The Apollo 11 mission began on July 16, 1969. The enormously powerful Saturn rocket blasted through the atmosphere and into space.
Pilot Armstrong and copilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin were in the lunar landing vehicle, named “The Eagle,” which carried out the final leg of the long mission to the Moon. Both men walked on the surface while Michael Collins, the third astronaut of the crew, remained in the orbiting command module.
President Kennedy’s mission statement to Congress carefully included mention of returning safely to Earth. Lunar mission Apollo 13 in April 1970 had to abort the planned landing after an explosion. That crew also came back alive, though only after a harrowing return flight.
The only lives lost in the U.S. Moon effort were Roger B. Chaffee, Gus Grissom and Ed White, in January 1967. They died when a capsule fire suddenly erupted, ironically while still on the ground.
From the beginning, the U.S. space program reflected the intensity of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Initial Soviet success in putting a satellite and then a human being in space generated tremendous debate and pressure within the U.S. for greater effort.
President Dwight Eisenhower laid the foundation of U.S. space exploration, with constraints. He strongly, successfully opposed militarization of space, and discouraged Cold War competition.
Ike also insisted that crews be selected from trained pilots, who had the temperament and stamina required. His own preference was for unmanned, sophisticated instrument exploration missions.
Kennedy made space a top priority of the U.S. government, driven directly by Cold War anxieties. The disastrous failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 led to an almost desperate White House searching for ways to show national assertiveness and resolve.
The Moon mission met that political goal. Additionally, JFK embraced the inherent adventure and risks involved, and spent time with the astronauts.
After the successful Apollo Moon program, U.S. space efforts focused on the Space Shuttle, also initially planned in 1969. This was a reusable low orbital craft, designed for scientific work close to Earth.
The enormously expensive Apollo program was comparable to the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II. Understandably, more limited practical efforts followed, with a constant eye on costs.
President George W. Bush committed the nation to a manned Mars mission. The relatively low-key announcement included far less fanfare, and generated far less public interest, than was the case regarding the Moon program.
Space flight generates less widespread excitement today in part because we are collectively much more cautious than in the past. Public anxiety over the safety of Shuttle flights reflects that attitude.
There are two main, enduring reasons for space exploration. First, while the Cold War fueled initial efforts, space exploration today involves international cooperation. Science holds an olive branch. Currently, the U.S. works in space with China, Russia and other nations.
Second, vast scientific and technical benefits accrue. Component miniaturization required for early space missions directly aided development of personal computers, portable phones and today’s pervasive communication devices.
Whatever your politics, when you turn on your computer or cell phone, you say hello to JFK.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact email@example.com.