Project Apollo: Stunt or Portent?

A decade and a half after Eugene Cernan left the last human footprint on the moon, the value and the wisdom of the Apollo project can still be debated. As an engineering accomplishment it is unparalleled in history. As a scientific project it enabled researchers on earth to study documented specimens from another body in the solar system, perhaps the only such specimens that will be available in this century. As an exercise in the management of an unprecedentedly large and complex effort it stands alone in human experience.

Yet all these achievements can be read two ways. Magnificent as they were, the launch vehicles that carried men to the moon turned out to be too expensive for other missions. The choice of lunar-orbit rendezvous as the mission mode - largely dictated by the end-of-the-decade challenge - produced two spacecraft ideally adapted to their function but without sufficient margin for growth to advance the exploration of the moon as far as scientists wanted. Apollo's scientific results were of vital interest to only a very small fraction of the scientific community and did not authoritatively answer the questions scientists hoped they would answer before the first landing. (As one critic caustically commented, the scientists were able to obtain "a neater fix, so to speak, on the number of angels who can dance on the point of a pin."42) The methods devised for managing Apollo were impressive; yet the question remains,

Has the whole operation represented but another highly successful one-shot exercise in crisis management, or has it represented incorporation into American society of a new way to organize, systematically and purposefully, the development and use of scientific and technological resources to the furtherance of national goals?43
James Webb, under whose direction NASA developed those methods, believed them to be the lasting contribution of Apollo, but in the 18 years since the first lunar landing they have not been applied to any undertaking of comparable size.

It was unfortunate, in a sense, for the United States's space program that Kennedy's challenge called for NASA to proceed directly to the most difficult goal that seemed achievable in 1961, for it doomed whatever followed to be an anticlimax:

The first Apollo landing was, in one sense, a triumph that failed, not because the achievement was anything short of magnificent but because of misdirected expectations and a general misinterpretation of its real meaning. The public was encouraged to view it only as the grand climax of the space program, a geopolitical horse race and extraterrestrial entertainment - not as a dramatic means to the greater end of developing a far-ranging spacefaring capability [italics in the original].44

Americans had plenty to occupy their attention in 1969 - civil rights, the plight of the poor, an increasingly unpopular war in southeast Asia, rising federal deficits, and growing concern for the preservation of a livable environment - and plenty of advocates for every cause clamoring for action. If the nation had not set its space goals as high as possible at the outset, the concerns of the late 1960s could easily have stopped a more measured approach well short of the moon.

Future generations may look back on Apollo as a costly technological stunt or the portent of man's destiny in the universe. Scientists studying the origin and evolution of the solar system may devise other means of acquiring data from the moon and the planets, but they will surely be thankful for the samples gathered by the twelve men who made the first lunar voyages.

42. William Hines, "End of a Crazy Business," Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 21, 1972.

43. Fov D. Kohler and Dodd L. Harvey, "Administering and Managing the U.S. and Soviet Space Programs," Science 169 (1970):1049-55.

44. John Noble Wilford, "A Spacefaring People: Keynote Address," in Alex Roland, ed., A Spacefaring People: Perspectives on Early Spaceflight, NASA SP-4405 (Washington, 1985), proceedings of a conference on the history of space activity held at Yale University, Feb. 6-7, 1981.

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