On the 20th of July 1969, 50 years ago, mankind put their first steps onto another celestial body. The moon landing was a moment watched by millions and Neil Armstrong forever went down in folklore with his famous words as he walked down the steps of the probe onto the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The mission delivered on President Kennedy’s 1961 promise to land an American on the moon by the end of that decade. With the American flag flying proudly on the Sea of Tranquility, the US had finally won its space race with the Soviet Union, spending billions in the process. This week has seen a flurry of events celebrating the achievement and whilst much of it in the context of science, technology and progress, the truth is this belies the true reality.
It was World War II (WW2) and the military build-up that allowed the journey to the moon to be a reality. It was Nazi scientists and the advancements in long-range rockets like the V2 that allowed the moon landings to take place. As WW2 ended the Americans extradited Nazi scientists to work on their rocket programme. The Americans managed to capture the godfather of the Nazi rocket programme Wernher Von Braun who would play an instrumental role in the Saturn V rockets that would end up taking man to the moon. The Russians were not far behind as they also took V2 rockets home and started their own programme.
Access to space became paramount in the early days of the Cold War, despite the number of high-profile manned missions in 1950s and 1960s aimed at collecting scientific data, the drivers behind space programmes of that era were largely strategic concerns. The initial Cold War push into space was spurred by military interests and fuelled by massive government expenditures aimed at addressing those interests. Economic benefits were an add-on effect.
The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a shift in space programmes from primarily military to include commercial applications. When the divide between the Eastern and Western blocs fell, Russia and Ukraine inherited the Soviet Union’s space capabilities. They quickly moved to attract commercial launch opportunities from previously off-limits markets. At the same time, the US began to deregulate its space launch industry, allowing for private launch providers. These new companies have become vital to the US space strategy today.
What is all the fuss about space?
Today, a diverse range of nations take part in space activity from Japan, China, South Korea, India, North Korea, France, Iran and the UK. These activities give them the means to develop the know-how needed to build space-based systems, leveraging expertise in areas such as shipbuilding to expand into the aerospace sector and compete with other commercial launch providers. General science and technological research, and academic development in these nations allows them to maintain their economic — and potentially military — edge. Donald Trump highlighted this in a 2018 speech: “My new national strategy for space recognises that space is a warfighting domain just like the land, air, and sea. We have the air force, we will have the space force.”
Satellites, spying and missiles are also reasons why nations engage in space-related activities. There are currently 4987 satellites in space according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). If you control space you can control what is happening on Earth, that is why space is the next battleground with emerging nations like China. The military applications are why billions are spent on space-related activity. These billions are spent at the expense of many Earth-based activities.
NASA’s annual budget is $21 billion and ever since its inception, the US has spent over $600 billion (in nominal dollars) on NASA. Global space-related expenditure is estimated to be $345 billion annually and whilst science and technology are promoted as the reason for spending such vast sums, especially since the end of the Cold War, the truth is the potential economic prospects are why space-based research and exploration is pursued. As space is such a hostile environment, getting there, travelling through the vacuum of space, keeping humans alive during this process is where science and technology have flourished, but these are means to an end, and not an end in itself.
In the US, 40 million people live in poverty, approximately 32 million adults cannot read, according to the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50% of US adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level . Nearly 10 million Americans are believed to have lost their homes since the global economic crisis . The US and much of the developing world have spent more money on matters out this world than the human and Earth-related issues of poverty and education. India is another case in point: the government saw sending a satellite to Mars in the Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission more important than dealing with the 20 million citizens languishing in poverty or the fact that the majority of India’s people do not have access to toilets.
Whilst a man to the moon is a great achievement, this is all taking place when half the world’s population is in poverty and when billions do not even have access to clean water. Inequality is worse than ever, solving these is not just great leadership, they are what billions should be spent on. People should be coming before profits and economics. When this is achieved and everyone’s basic needs are fulfilled, then we can say mankind has truly achieved something out of this world, and that date should be celebrated as the day when mankind really achieved its full potential.