Chris Guiton discussses the politics of the moon landing in 1969
The first moon landing took place on 20 July 1969. The 50th anniversary of this incredible achievement has rightly been an opportunity to celebrate the skill and heroism of the two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who planted the first human footprints on the Moon’s surface. We can also marvel at the massive technical effort required by the NASA team to get them there, and back, safely.
Their success is even more astonishing when you consider the primitive nature of the technology used and the huge risks taken as they, literally, journeyed into the unknown. The computers used on Apollo 11 had a fraction of the power that we take for granted in today’s smartphones. While, by the time the Lunar Module landed, they had less than 40 seconds of fuel left.
An estimated 650 million people watched the fuzzy images on their TVs of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder from the Apollo 11 Lunar Module onto the surface of the Moon. As he took his first steps, he uttered words that have entered the history books, "That's one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind."
Ironically, Armstrong’s first step onto the Moon wasn’t that small. He’d landed the Lunar Module so gently that the shock absorbers hadn’t compressed. This made his first ‘step’ more like a four-foot jump onto the lunar surface.
What did he really say?
But what’s really fascinating about his statement is the controversy that has surrounded what he actually said. And meant. The statement that millions heard doesn’t really make sense. The words “man” and “mankind” were often used synonymously. This renders a potentially inspirational statement meaningless.
But the addition of the one-lettered indefinite article “a” before “man” is all it took to turn this quote into the inspirational words we expected. Which was, presumably, what both Neil Armstrong and NASA intended in the first place.
The official NASA transcript of the Moon landing mission quotes Armstrong as saying, "That's one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind." And, according to Armstrong, those were the words he meant to speak.
Various theories have been advanced to explain why we didn’t hear it in this form. They revolve around: technological limitations; a reduction in signal quality caused by radio static and the huge distance between the Earth and the Moon; and Armstrong’s Ohio accent, which may have elided the “a”. Detailed analysis of the original recording suggests that he didn’t say it. We’ll probably never know for sure. But does it really matter?
As Armstrong himself later said, “I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said.”
And we can surely also recognise his intention to deploy the power of antithesis. This is the figure of speech that juxtaposes two contrasting elements in a sentence, playing on their complementary properties and creating, in the process, a vivid new image. In this case, emphasising the stark contrast between one individual’s experience of taking a simple step, and the symbolic significance for humanity of our landing on the Moon.
The statement is lodged permanently in our collective memory. Why? This is partly because of the optimism that surrounded science and technology at the time, and the role played by space exploration in giving expression to this. As Captain Kirk’s prologue put it at the beginning of each episode of Star Trek,
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!
The Space Race
Of equal interest is the political context of the ‘space race’, rooted as it was in the Cold War. The early successes of the USSR put the United States under intense pressure.
The series of Soviet “firsts” in space included:
- The launch of Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth.
- The first experiments with animals on orbiters to test the feasibility of manned space flight.
- The series of Luna probes from 1959, undertaking flybys of the moon, culminating with Luna 9 achieving the first soft landing on the moon and transmitting the first close-up photos of the lunar surface in 1966.
- Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space in 1961, putting a man into orbit around Earth for the first time.
- The first woman in space as cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova lifted off in 1963 in Vostok 6 for three days of Earth orbits.
These successes generated a combative response from the US. Their strategic priority was to beat the USSR and assert American technological superiority in space. President John F Kennedy said in 1961 that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. The costs of the Apollo project were immense. But the race was on. And Kennedy framed the desire to explore space as an integral part of the pioneering spirit that underpinned American mythology.
As we know, the US won. The Soviet Union eventually pulled out of attempts to land men on the Moon, beaten by the better organisation and higher funding levels of the American space programme. They opted instead to focus on the development of orbital space stations around Earth, with results that continue to bear fruit, even after the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR.
Curiously, the gender implications of Armstrong’s statement are often overlooked. And, unsurprisingly, complicate things further. Though the word "man" was traditionally used in some contexts to refer to all human beings, male and female, usually in contrast with other animals, it is rarely used these days to mean "all humanity. "Mankind" kept a gender-neutral meaning in English for longer than "man" did. But no longer. These days, it’s rightly regarded by most people as sexist, with a preference for “human beings” or “humankind”.
Opposition to the Apollo space programme
Finally, the technological achievement of the Apollo 11 mission, shouldn’t blind us to the significant opposition to the programme in the US. It was dubbed a ‘moondoggle’ (a play on ‘boondoggle’, a wasteful, politically motivated project) by Norbert Wiener, an influential mathematician and philosopher. And was opposed by many American scientists worried about the massive costs incurred and its distortion of research and development priorities.
Many black commentators also questioned the use of public money to pursue the space race when so many African-Americans were struggling with poverty, inequality and discrimination. As jazz poet and rapper Gil Scott-Heron put it in “Whitey on the Moon”,
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey's on the moon)
I can't pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still.
(while Whitey's on the moon).
The song challenged the argument that the moon landing delivered for all Americans. Food for thought as President Trump seeks to weaponise space, with the full support of the military-industrial complex. This will be profoundly destabilising, setting off another arms race, increasing global tensions and undermining the common development of what surely belongs to us all.
This article is also published on Wealden Wordsmith.