What steps has humanity taken?
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong’s famous phrase marked the first human footstep on the moon. It is now 40 years since the historic achievement of Apollo 11 in 1969, but his words are still instantly recognisable to people of all generations.
It was 1961 when President Kennedy first announced the intention “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” This was to become the next step in the ‘space race’ between the world’s then two superpowers, the capitalist US and the Stalinist Soviet Union.
The Soviets had already put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit in October 1957 and the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. This was a blow to the prestige of the American ruling class. For them, winning the space race would prove the superiority of their capitalist system over ‘communism’. There were also important military offshoots from the technology involved and control of space.
The US devoted over $24 billion to the Apollo programme, around $1 trillion in today’s money. The main reason for this enormous cost was clear, as Kennedy himself admitted: “the only justification for it…is because we hope to beat them.” The US went to enormous lengths to ‘win’. Wernher von Braun, a former SS officer and one of a number of Nazi scientists brought to America after World War Two, helped to develop the rocket technology.
However, less than a year after Armstrong’s historic step the Nixon administration announced space exploration was a falling priority. In 1972 Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to land on the moon and further missions were cancelled. The US government considered the space race to have been won and scientific goals to be secondary. At this time the Vietnam War was also proving a far greater challenge to their power and prestige.
When asked what was going through his mind before take off, the commander of the Apollo 8 mission replied that: “every one of the one million parts behind and beneath me was built by the guy who put in the lowest tender.” The profits of big aerospace and engineering firms presented a safety risk to the astronauts just as today profit is the first concern of a company, including in the building of schools, hospitals and other public projects. Nonetheless, the moon landings were an incredible feat, especially given that NASA had less computing power at its disposal than many readers will currently have in their pocket!
In 2004 the former president, George W Bush, announced plans to send further manned missions to the moon by 2020, to establish a base there and to then send people to Mars. Not known as a man of science it seems he was motivated by similar concerns to those of Kennedy. His boast came after China’s first manned space flight and their announced intention to send someone to the moon by 2010.
There are also more sinister reasons behind it. Control of space is still seen as an important military arena. The so-called son of star wars programme is a controversial American missile defence shield involving satellites to guide missiles. Satellites are also used for military observation and could be potentially used to house weapons.
The economic crisis means Bush’s plans, estimated to cost up to $1 trillion, look highly unlikely. While the gains to scientific understanding from such a mission would be enormous, the cost is difficult to justify given all the problems capitalism has caused on earth. These plans would cost many times the amount needed to provide clean drinking water to the 1.1 billion people that currently don’t have access to it. It is also much more than the roughly $600 billion annual cost of fighting climate change estimated by the Stern report.
While these essentials should clearly be the first priority for socialists, it is not a case of either/or. It is the capitalist system which causes these problems and the drive for profit which holds back scientific research. The crisis of capitalism which is now worsening the living standards of working people is estimated to have wiped $50 trillion out of the world economy.
The 40th anniversary of the moon landing is still something to be celebrated. The moon landings captured the imagination of millions all over the world and still hold an important place in our cultural landscape. They illustrate both the capabilities of humanity and the extreme limitations of a capitalist society (and also the limitations that were placed on the planned economy in the USSR by the repressive Stalinist bureaucracy).
The phrase: “they can put a man on the moon but they can’t…get the trains on time, keep me in a job, provide the world with clean water, etc” is common. The list of what could easily be achieved but hasn’t been, because of private ownership and the rule of profit, is endless. For instance, under capitalism, multinationals waste huge amounts of resources competing against each other. A democratic socialist and international plan of production and investment could limit duplication and maximise cooperation in research and all areas.
Replacing the capitalist system with one of democratic socialism would give priority to the burning problems we face on Earth. It could also free space exploration from the needs of national prestige and warmongering to be used for genuine scientific advancement. This would truly be a ‘giant leap’.
By Tom Baldwin