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Fifty years ago this Saturday, American astronauts landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, with support from Apollo 11 crew member Michael Collins and a host of unheralded others on terra firma, became the first human emissaries to set foot on the lunar surface. As half a billion people watched on television around the world, Armstrong described this initial contact as “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Implicit in his words, as in the famous Earthrise photo taken during Apollo 8, was that the entire world was in this together. The United States was exploring outer space for all of humanity.
The American flag that the astronauts hoisted at the landing site, however, testifies to a more complicated reality. The U.S. space program from which Apollo 11 emerged was an amalgam of nationalism and globalism, superpower competition and peaceful cooperation. Half a century after that moment of world-historical importance, scholars and pundits are still untangling these unruly, competing narratives.
Understanding the complex historical motivations behind the U.S. foray into space is important, because humanity is on the cusp of a new age of space exploration involving both countries and corporations that will include expeditions to the moon, to Mars, and perhaps beyond. Ensuring that space exploration benefits humanity will require an internationalist mindset that entails more than a fixation on flags and footprints. To ensure that outer space remains a peaceful domain open to sustainable exploration and use by all, the United States must not only revive its spirit of national adventure but also recommit itself to international cooperation, working with other nations and the private sector on fundamental rules for and approaches to governing the final frontier.
Lunar Cold Warriors
The U.S. space program had its origins in geopolitical competition. Beginning with its October 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to circle the Earth, the Soviet Union alarmed U.S. national security strategists by achieving, in rapid succession, historic feats in space. A month after Sputnik, the dog Laika became the first animal to reach orbit. In September 1959, Luna 2 became the first spacecraft to impact the moon. The following month Luna 3 took the first photos of the far side of the moon. Finally, in April 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth.
The alacrity of Soviet progress—compared to sporadic U.S. successes—demoralized Americans, who worried that the United States was falling behind in the superpower competition. The “conquest of space,” although effected through peaceful means, quickly became a proxy for national standing in the nuclear arms race, with triumphs in the heavens auguring victories on Earth. Losing “the ultimate high ground” would cost the nation untold international prestige.
These anxieties propelled the United States to action. In May 1961, before a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy made a bold pledge to send an American to the moon before the end of the decade. The following year, he delivered his famous speech at Rice University, in which he erected the moral and rhetorical superstructure for the Apollo Program: “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.” Although Kennedy did not live to see his promise realized, NASA delivered on it, with several months to spare.
A New Moon Race?
Today, the moon is once again an object of national ambition, and Donald J. Trump administration officials have made no secret of their intention to pursue U.S. dominance in outer space. Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at the March 2019 meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, set a goal of returning “American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil,” to the moon in the next five years.
The United States is not alone in its lunar ambitions. Newer spacefaring nations, such as India and China, as well as billionaire-backed private companies that include Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are now in the mix, with a diverse array of aspirations and missions in the works. India’s next mission to the moon, Chandrayaan-2, is crewless, as was China’s Chang’e 4 mission to the lunar far side in January. China has plans to send humans to the moon, but not for another ten years or so. American private companies, meanwhile, have much shorter timelines. Bezos projects that Blue Origin, which has unveiled its own lunar lander, could return to the moon as soon as 2024. Meanwhile, Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa has procured a lunar flyby, which could occur as early as 2023, from SpaceX.
This burgeoning activity reflects a space domain in rapid flux, one that has become more congested, competitive, and contested. As nations and corporations place new satellites in space—including planned “mega-constellations”—coordinating orbits and managing radio-frequency spectrum use are becoming challenges of greater importance. Orbital debris is increasing quickly, increasing the risk of catastrophic collisions even as humanity relies on satellites for innumerable functions, from telecommunications to global positioning to earth observation. Geopolitical competition in outer space is also heating up, augmenting the hazards associated with space militarization. Determined to win this competition, the Trump administration is working toward creation of a U.S. Space Force that can ensure, in the president’s words, U.S. “dominance” in outer space. Pence, similarly, has emphasized the moon’s (alleged) strategic value. Other spacefaring nations, including China and Russia, could follow the U.S. down this dangerous path.
These worrisome trends risk transforming outer space into a weaponized arena of zero-sum or even regressive military competition. Such developments would overwhelm international space cooperation and undermine the realization of humanity’s collective interest in preserving an open, peaceful outer space domain from which all can benefit. The United States has a short window of opportunity to help lead the world in a more productive direction, based on our shared stakes in a sustainable future on Earth and beyond.
Outer space has beckoned humanity to great accomplishments, not least the lunar landing that we commemorate this week. Space exploration, the Apollo Program in particular, has also reaffirmed our common destiny as a species inhabiting—as the popular 1970s children’s TV show framed it—a “Big Blue Marble” in the dark void. Even during the Cold War, this common fate captured the imagination, eliciting too-often forgotten cooperative efforts like the International Geophysical Year, which birthed the Space Age. Similar cooperation will be imperative if we are to move one day beyond our planetary cradle to the moon, Mars, and possibly the stars.
The lasting legacy of Apollo 11 is not the now-fallen flag on the lunar surface but the recognition that we are, in a cosmic sense, all in this together. By a miraculous albeit natural constellation of forces set off by the Big Bang billions of years ago, Earth accreted, life emerged, and humanity evolved from a cloud of interstellar dust. What we do with this cosmic endowment is up to us. Space exploration has the potential to inspire humanity to great deeds and answer some of life’s greatest philosophical questions. It also has the potential to exacerbate our worst and most destructive impulses.