Influence of Apollo 11 Program on American Society: Analytical Essay

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July 16th, 1969. After spending four days in the vacuum of space, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin begin their nerve-wracking descent to the lunar surface. Slowly and carefully, they maneuver down to the Moon. Exhausted and tired, they take a break to rest, then suit up to head out onto the cold barren lunar surface. All the while, millions of viewers across the world crowd around radios, families huddle around the living room television, and everyone hangs on Walter Cronkite’s every word of commentary on the mission, watching not just American astronauts making history, but humanity’s first giant leap into the stars.

Although quite a thrill to all who were watching, only a very few in the audience really comprehended the unparalleled sacrifices that were made to finally put mankind on the Moon: years of preparation; hundreds of thousands of hours in engineering; development of entirely new technologies; dozens of deaths, and billions of spent taxpayer dollars. NASA finally achieved the milestone President Kennedy first laid out in his famous Moon speech on September 12, 1962, calling on America to put a man on the Moon and return him home safely before the decade was out. Reflecting back on this historic event not only in American but human history, we ponder in the words of John F. Kennedy himself, “why to choose to go to the Moon?” And the answer was quite clear for the time period, at least for most Americans. But for others, it was more ambiguous.

At the time of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, the U.S. was deeply involved in the cold war with the Soviet Union. The bitter rivalry saw the U.S. and the Soviets thwarting one another in any way possible. When the Soviets made the first steps into space, America followed suit, in an effort to come out on top with the best rocket technology. The space race was an existential imperative: if we didn’t keep up, Russia could very well achieve an overwhelming military advantage, one we might not survive. America needed the best missile and guidance technology and human exploration was a means to that end. All the while, the U.S. was in the thick of the Vietnam conflict, massive anti-war protests, and the counterculture movement was on the rise in American youth.

America needed to counter the Soviets whether in the jungles of southeast Asia or in orbit above the planet. No less than our very survival as democracy was at stake, or so thought the best minds in our government. Nonetheless, as the costs of Vietnam grew, both in lives and dollars, so too did the opposition. Nightly news broadcasted horrific scenes of battle directly into American living rooms, not to mention mounting civil unrest. Against this backdrop, some Americans began to question the government’s investment in the space program. Those in power, however, had made a calculated decision that we were “better dead than red,” and therefore it was worth diverting resources from fighting poverty to keep up with the Soviets in space. In this paper, we will discuss these two views of sending American astronauts to the Moon. First, we look at the government’s justification, and then the side of those who opposed NASA’s lunar program.

The article from the New York Times “Voice From Moon: 'Eagle Has Landed'”[1] is about a dialogue between mission control, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. In summary, although a word-for-word, routine transcript of technical talk between the three parties, the New York Times nonetheless devoted two full pages to their conversation, because it was such a momentous occasion. TV was starting to become a popular form of entertainment, but most Americans still read the newspaper. By giving so much space, the New York Times crystallized the sense of pride and achievement Americans felt in their country’s ability to push the limit of going where no American had gone before. In addition, this article supports the side of NASA's efforts because it is a straightforward report of the Moon landing without adding any additional context about the cost of getting the men there.

As an agency of the United States government, NASA is funded with taxpayer dollars. In the early 1960s, the “red scare” was at its height. Then the Soviets put a man into orbit. Two months later, Kennedy gave his Moon speech, and Congress, reflecting the fears of their constituents, began funding the space program. Although the Gemini and Apollo programs will go down in history as stepping stones to mankind’s first exploration into outer space, the budgets needed to sustain such programs were astronomically large.

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At the same time, the U.S. government also felt it necessary to push back against the Soviet influence in Vietnam, because, as the saying went, if Vietnam fell, that was just the first domino. Fighting this multi-front campaign against Communism in space, and on the ground, consumed vast resources. It’s no wonder that some people felt abandoned by their government. To activists, the lunar program seemed like a colossal waste of taxpayer money that should have been spent on other programs to help alleviate racism and poverty. Let's now explore the opposition's point of view.

In the New York Times article, “Hundreds of Thousands Flock to Be 'There'”[2] Ralph Abernathy, and his followers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gathered at the Cape Kennedy Space Center in July of 1969, not just to observe the Apollo 11 launch, but also as a way to bring attention to a variety of issues going on in the United States. His general reason for assembling the protest was to criticize the priorities of the U.S government, for choosing to bankroll a Moon landing expedition, over what they considered more pressing matters, such as lowering the poverty rate and upholding civil rights. In the words of Hosea Williams, the organizer of this protest best sums up their noticeable presence at the space center. “We do not oppose the Moon shot, we feel the effort is laudable. Our purpose for being here is to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities... We do not want to be destructive here, we don’t want to irritate, in fact, we want to educate... We are spending billions of dollars to explore outer space but if America were to spend that same amount of money feeding the poor and hungry, then poverty and hunger would be gone from the face of America today.”[2]

In the New York Times article “Hundreds of Thousands Flock to Be 'There,'”[2] although the article mainly supports the Apollo program, it also highlights the small, but significant, protest of Ralph Abernathy and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the main force for civil rights activism at the time. Although Abernathy on the whole supported the idea of the space program, he nonetheless questioned the U.S government’s choice to prioritize the spending of billions of dollars to fight communism over the welfare of its own citizens. Gilbert Scott-Heron, another prominent activist, put his critique of the space program into his heartfelt spoken-word poem: “Whitey On the Moon. ”[3] “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 man just upped my rent last night. ('cause Whitey's on the moon) No hot water, no toilets, no lights. (but Whitey's on the moon). ”[3] As seen in his poem, it certainly expresses people’s perception that the US government wanted to send a man to the moon more than it wanted to uphold civil rights and lower the poverty rate. While both Abernathy and Scott-Heron highlight how the lunar program money could have been better spent elsewhere, they fail to acknowledge the importance of the political drive people had for wanting to send a man to the Moon before the Soviets did.

The role of a historian is to document the past to the best of their abilities. The past, although easily documented in newspapers, may not fully show the picture of what historians are trying to preserve for future generations, and the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon is no exception. The New York Times article “Voice From Moon: 'Eagle Has Landed'”[1] which praised the Apollo 11 Mission did not fully encompass the range of what America was going through in 1969. It did not mention the many struggles a fifth[2] of its citizens were going through, nor did it show the brutal reality of Vietnam’s influence on the average American’s mind, or even the feeling of pointlessness the next generation felt toward carrying the torch of fighting communism with them.

In all seriousness, this New York Times article[1] only showed a snapshot of America’s good side and left out the troubling domestic problems that Americans would rather overlook at a time of rejoicing and celebration of not only America's greatest scientific achievement but also humanity’s as well. What does seem to encompass the full view of America in 1969 was the article[2] reporting on Ralph Abernathy’s peaceful protest, and the poem by Gilbert Scott-Heron.“Whitey on the moon”[3]. These two sources, taken together, showed not only the positive aspects of Apollo 11 but also the domestic problems America seemed to be concealed under a rug for another day to solve. If a historian were to judge which source would be more truthful, they would most likely choose the article of Ralph Abernathy’s protest and Gilbert Scott-Heron’s poem, to accurately portray the range of American sentiment during Apollo 11’s departure to the lunar surface.

It is a truism that we tend to remember the happiest moments of our lives while blocking out the more painful times (even subconsciously). This is true of societies as well as individuals. It is fine to cherish the successes of the past, and the Moon landing was a memorable moment, where Americans, and indeed the whole world, could stop in our shoes and say say “we’ve done it,” and stand in awe of ourselves taking the first steps to becoming a starfaring species. After all, it's inevitable that there will always be poverty, war, and greed. And if we never focused on anything else, we would have never made the technological strides that we have. But the one thing the Moon landing has taught the human race is that even the most impossible things are within our reach with enough willpower and effort. Just as Ralph Abernathy said we are capable of such beautiful things if we put our heads together, perhaps the example of the Moon landing can inspire us to eventually bring about an end to the perpetuity of human suffering.

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Influence of Apollo 11 Program on American Society: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from
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