My current book is Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest by Gerard Degroot. The subtitle, I think, should really be A Cynical Luddite Curmudgeon Looks at the Space Race.
I’m among the first children of the Fifties, and we grew up with the wonders of the “space race.” The people in our neighborhood, adults and children alike, gathered out in the street to watch Echo fly over. We saw the very first satellite broadcast from Europe (although I was royally irked that it interrupted a perfectly good rerun of “Wagon Train”). We read the Life magazine stories about the astronauts, and when Americans went into space, if someone’s parents had an extra TV they could spare for the day (not a common thing in those days) then our school classes came to a halt while we darkened the room and watched the launch, and sometimes the splashdown. (No TV available for Alan Shepard’s flight when I was in the fifth grade, but we listened to it on a transistor radio in class.)
Of course, it wasn’t all wine and roses. My father, a combat veteran of WWII, had absolutely no use for Wernher von Braun, and every time his name was mentioned, Dad would sneer “That Nazi.” Girls were told flat-out that they couldn’t be astronauts, and Valentina Tereshkova’s flight was airily dismissed as nothing more than a publicity stunt. (Well, it was, but that wasn’t the point.) Astronauts died in plane crashes, and of course there was the horrendous fire in Apollo 1.
But the idea of going to the Moon was magical, somehow, even if women were excluded and not much really came of it and most people don’t remember much about the Moon landings nowadays.
Degroot’s unwavering criticism of the whole affair proves quite soundly that even if the individual elements of an argument are true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument itself is valid. He points out that the whole “space race” was built on a tissue of lies and disinformation (true) and that Russian technology wasn’t anything like the propagandists told us it was (true) and that even Kennedy, who issued the challenge to go to the moon “before this decade is out” wasn’t really that much of a fan of NASA (who knows; we’re not mind readers and JFK is long gone). He sides firmly with the people who felt that the billions of dollars spent getting a few men to the Moon ought to have been spent making lasting changes here on Earth (possibly true, but given the limited success of all the various Earth programs into which billions have been poured over the years…)
In short, he says, we wasted our money and we wasted our time. Wernher von Braun was an SS used car salesman, the directors of NASA were glad-handing idiots who knew how to work a crowd, and all the emphasis on “science and technology” really didn’t get us anywhere. Most of the inventions credited to the “space race” were actually products of the pre-NASA years, our focus on putting people in space made things needlessly complicated and costly, and we should have been trumpeting our achievements in areas of space other than the launching and retrieving of humans into the cosmos.
All true. But I don’t happen to think that we wasted our time or money. The journey to the moon did give us some common ground as a nation, in a time when all sorts of other world events were fracturing American society and driving wedges between parent and child, neighbor and neighbor, city and city, state and state. We needed something to spur our collective imagination. We needed to believe that we were indeed taking one small step on a much larger journey.
My own commentary: It shouldn’t have taken 20 years for American women to follow Valentina Tereshkova into space, but that mistake was a product of the Fifties mindset. The women who applied for the Mercury program did better than the men on the tests. It was only Eisenhower’s insistence that the astronauts be test pilots that screwed women out of any chance of equal standing. But that was the Fifties mindset. Eisenhower was born in 1890 and shaped by his upbringing and his military service. He wouldn’t have seen a woman as his equal if she’d run him over with a Jeep. It took 20 years to get an American woman into space because that’s how long it took for American space jockeys to grudgingly acknowledge that women could maybe actually do it. Sally Ride was a child of the Fifties too (in fact, she’s about six months younger than me). I’m sure she was told she couldn’t be an astronaut. I’m glad she didn’t listen.
Degroot’s argument comes across as a longwinded case of sour grapes.