Why go to the moon?

23 July 2019

Interview with 

Rebecca Charbonneau, Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge

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On 12th September 1962, President John F Kennedy spoke at Rice University in Houston, Texas, committing to the biggest scientific challenge humans had ever seen. That in the next decade, America would land astronauts on the moon. He set the task; “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” But WHY was there this giant push to shoot for the moon? And were America really at the forefront for this “race”? Adam Murphy spoke to Rebecca Charbonneau from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge...

Rebecca - The reason the moon shot really got on the table was in part due to a speech that President Kennedy gave in 1962. Believe it or not the public support from the United States in regards to a moon shot was not as enthusiastic as you might have expected. And so Kennedy really needed to rally the American public and support behind a moon shot. And the reason they wanted to do a moon shot in the first place was largely for political reasons. In 1962 Kennedy was suffering massive political embarrassment in regards to the Bay of Pigs invasion, which had happened the prior year, and of course there was the escalating tension between the Soviet Union and the United States in regards to technical prowess and success in space. The Soviet Union had been massively successful, while the United States had suffered public failure after public failure. In fact, Kennedy, when he was giving his speech at Rice University, said something along the lines of “we have had our failures but so have others, even if they do not admit them, and they may be less public”. So there was also this suspicion about the Soviet Union. How were they so successful, and yet the United States kept failing?

Adam - And things were not going well for the Americans. At this point, the Soviets were leaving the Americans in their dust.

Rebecca - The Soviets had not only gotten the first satellite in space, Sputnik, they had also gotten the second satellite in space. The first animal in space - Laika the dog. The first man in space and orbit - that's Yuri Gagarin. The first woman in space - Valentina Tereshkova. The first lunar flyby, with Lunar One. The first lunar impact. First images of the far side of the moon. First lunar soft landing. First picture from the lunar surface. First lunar orbiter. First living creatures to fly past the moon. I mean, the list goes on and on. The Soviet Union in the early 60s had just been absolutely dominating the United States in space and so Kennedy did feel pressure for the United States, to not only catch up, but overtake the Soviet Union. And he in that speech used the phrase “the race to space”. So really using that competitive rhetoric to try to mobilize the United States.

Adam - Why space though? Why not a different field for the race, like the bottom of the ocean? What was it about the moon to captured humanity's attention?

Rebecca - I think it's largely in part to World War 2. So in World War 2 obviously there was a huge technological weapons development. Mostly you know missiles and bombings. So that the Germans had developed the V2 rocket, which was kind of the precursor to the ballistic missile. And at the end of World War 2, the Soviets and Americans, who were on the same side, both were really trying hard to try to capture not only the German rocket scientists, but also the V2 rockets themselves - so that the Soviets and Americans could try to use that technology to give themselves an advantage. And of course with intercontinental ballistic missiles - ones that can deploy weapons on other continents -there needs to be orbital capability right, or the ability to go into space. It was partially because of weapons development. And that was what really pushed the United States to start getting into space - with Sputnik, when the United States realized that the Soviets were able to put machinery in orbit. It wasn't so much of “we’re jealous that you can go into space”. It was this real sense of alarm - that they are technologically ahead of us in regards to mastering these weapon techniques. So that's largely how it - space - became the territory in which the early part of the Cold War was fought.

Adam - The moon landing marked the end of the space race and America had won. Why was that the end goal? Why not further, say Mars?

Rebecca - In the Rice speech that I mentioned earlier to Rice University in 1962 - that's the famous speech that Kennedy says “we choose to go to the moon” - and so he absolutely said not only is the United States going to make the goal of going to the moon they're going to do it within this decade. So within the 60s -  the 60s will be the “moon decade”. And that was accomplished right, in July of 1969, right before the decade ends they do end up on the moon. And that is usually considered the end of the space race. But of course that didn't mean that the Soviets didn't actively continue their space and lunar activities.

Adam - After this the more collaborative kind of space exploration we know of today began, as the Apollo program joined forces with the Soviet space rockets called Soyuz rockets. And began the daunting task of trying to make the rockets safely linkup in space, which is called a rendezvous.

Rebecca - A couple of years later, in 1975, was the first spaceflight to include two participating nations working together. And that was the Apollo-Soyuz test project, where a Soyuz and an Apollo spacecraft docked together in space, with a rendezvous, with a crew of five people - three Americans and two Soviets who spent two days working in orbit on experiments and conducting joint press conferences. And so some people consider the Apollo-Soyuz test project the official end of the space race because it was no longer missions that were competing with one another, but rather actively collaborating with one another. And that laid the groundwork for later collaborative space missions like the Mir Shuttle program, the International Space Station - I mean now space is a highly collaborative affair.

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