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One large misstep

The space program's human focus led to its much-lamented decay

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

"We choose to [do these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept," said John F. Kennedy, in one of his signature "moon speeches." NASA's Apollo program was young, but would eventually consume the greatest dedication of resources of any peacetime project in history: 400,000 people, $24 billion, 20,000 corporations and universities. Forty years ago, the quest ended with one giant leap for mankind-and a series of faltering footsteps afterward.

Apollo rose like the sun and set likewise, with a peculiar sense of anti-climax. Tom Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, characterizes the space race as the single-combat phase of the Cold War, begun by the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The USSR's ability to place a satellite in orbit raised a cry of alarm about the "Space Gap" between superpowers-how had we let American resolve become so flabby? One result was a federal imperative to improve high-school science education-which led, not incidentally, to evolution instruction being mandated across the board.

President Kennedy's early failures in foreign policy, such as his humiliating summit with Khrushchev in 1961 followed by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of communist Cuba, sharpened his enthusiasm for manned space flight. "We've got to catch up," he told NASA administrator James Webb during a meeting in April 1961. "There's nothing more important." The Soviets were way ahead in orbital flights; catching up there was next to impossible. But putting a man on the moon would not only catch us up but leave the enemy in the dust.

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The early 1960s were an age of space fever-those of us who were school age remember suspending our sentence diagrams and multiplication drills to watch John Glenn splash into the Pacific after orbiting the earth. Steady progress followed: one-man orbits, then two; tragedy when fire destroyed the command module and three astronauts, but success with the first lunar orbit. Meanwhile a discouraging decade served up political assassinations, race riots, and the escalation of war in Vietnam. But the Apollo 11 mission set off on schedule July 16, 1969, landing on the moon four days later.

And there, according to Tom Wolfe, "the American space program, the greatest, grandest, most Promethean-O.K. if I add 'godlike'?-quest in the history of the world, died in infancy."

Other moon launches followed-six in all, including the oddly triumphant Apollo 13, which survived a near-fatal malfunction. But those who expected our next giant leap to be Mars watched the space program dwindle to a series of uninspiring shuttle flights. What happened?

Two interesting cultural markers also occurred that summer. In June, Star Trek aired its last original episode, after three seasons of low ratings. Star Trek was a timely statement of classic humanism; "to boldly go where no man has gone before" could have been NASA's motto. But it didn't save the show from cancellation.

Then, from Aug. 15 to 18, over 400,000 young people converged on Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York for the Woodstock music festival, "three days of fun and music" that left the pastures-and middle-class American values-in shambles.

In retrospect, Apollo and Woodstock were high noon for two competing worldviews: scientific rigor vs. LSD, daunting challenge vs. self-indulgence, quest vs. "happening," America First vs. peace and love. The Apollo program was a humanist endeavor undertaken for the glory of man not God. Woodstock showcased the new-age "feelingness" that devolved into utopianism, environmentalism, and ultimately anti-humanism. If people won't control themselves they must be controlled.

Our unwillingness to go on to Mars is seen as a failure of imagination; Tom Wolfe wryly suggests that the space program needed a philosopher corps. But noble goals decay when they have no transcendent aim. When man takes the center, the center cannot hold.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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