Fifty years after Apollo 11 landed astronauts on the moon, what is the enduring legacy of humanity’s ventures beyond the Earth?  As explained by Harlan Lebo, author of 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America (Amazon USAmazon UK), the answer is much broader and deeper than President Kennedy’s original vision for achievement in space.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag during Apollo 11, on July 20, 1969.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag during Apollo 11, on July 20, 1969.

On a warm summer night in 1961, two months after President John Kennedy declared a mission to the moon as a national goal, presidential advisor Theodore Sorensen sat on the front steps of his home in Washington, staring up at the heavens, and wondered about the wisdom of creating a program to send humans into outer space.

“Was it really possible,” Sorensen remembered thinking, “or was it all crazy?” 

Crazy or not, eight years later the goal was realized with the journey of Apollo 11 in July 1969 – five months before Kennedy’s deadline of reaching the moon “before the decade is out.”

While the specific goal of reaching the moon was achieved, Kennedy’s broader intention – to demonstrate to the world America’s supremacy in technology and national will – was also more than satisfied.  And if the United States not been engaged at the same time in a hopeless, endless war in Vietnam, the benefits to the nation might have been even more pronounced.


Looking back at a deeper legacy

Now, 50 years later, we can look back and ask, did Apollo spawn a lasting legacy?  The most obvious answer is yes – the US reached the moon, and with that achievement firmly established the United States as the pre-eminent leader in science and engineering of the 20thcentury.  

Thanks to Apollo, America still supports a vigorous space program – even without a current schedule of manned missions – that engages both the public and private sectors.  And we can, of course, itemize the direct benefits of our efforts in space with a tally of specific products as diverse as fire prevention fabric, improved solar cells, freeze-dried food, and medical monitoring, among hundreds of others.

But beyond those individual achievements, the enduring advances are less tangible, yet even more profound.  


The jolt of inspiration

The greatest value of Apollo to the American experience emerged from the sudden, abrupt focus of technological inspiration required to create the lunar mission – the largest financial outlay ever made by a peacetime nation.  

While one can point to the growing needs of national defense in the cold war as a catalyst for economic growth, it was the research and development across the spectrum of science required for the Apollo Program, compressed from decades into a few years in the 1960s, that acted at a breakneck speed as a formidable accelerator in advancing the nation.  The jolt supplied by the manned space program produced a trail of benefits – not only for the results achieved in space, but for the technical possibilities that the mission illuminated.  

Transcending individual inventions and products, Apollo stimulated the broad expansion of advances over a wide range of industries and fields – including many enlightened enterprises that are both profitable and progressive, such as organizations involved in precision medical equipment or alternative energy sources. 

For example, the process of creating the Apollo Guidance Computer, with its razor-thin margin of capabilities needed to support the moon missions, became a high-profile inspiration within the computer industry to create new generations of components that were more powerful, smaller, and cheaper.  

The country’s growing needs for digital technology in space programs created a thriving market – and competition – in the creation of semiconductors and related hardware for the computing industry. U.S. government projects – primarily defense and space – were the world’s largest purchasers of semiconductors – accounting for almost 70 percent of all sales – spurring production and shrinking prices. In 1962, the average price of a computer chip was $50; by 1973, the price had fallen to 63 cents. 

Beyond just shrinking the costs of technology, Apollo proved to be a powerful catalyst for the digital realm long after the missions were over – with important links to the growth of Silicon Valley and other tech crucibles. The path was clear for the development of new types of computers that did not yet exist, including computers created for individuals. Soon to come were the first personal computers in the 1970s and 1980s; the internet was not far behind. 


New leaders, new progress

This progress was possible largely because of growth in technological leadership – a new generation that rose in American business, science, and engineering thanks to the flourishing of the space program.

“Many people point to guys working in their garages in the Silicon Valley as the starting point for the technology industries of the 1980s,” said space historian Roger Launius. “But much of the innovation of that era had already come from scientists and engineers trained to work in the space program; after Apollo, these people dispersed and went everywhere – to companies, to universities, to think tanks – taking with them the knowledge they had gained from working on the space program. 

“We saw a blossoming of technology in the 1970s,” said Launius, “that was in no small part the result of the base of knowledge that built up during the space program, and that was pushed by Apollo.”

The Apollo 11 landing on the Moon was the most important peacetime achievement of the 20thcentury.   But even more important is the broad range of change inspired by Apollo that continues to touch the American experience.


Harlan Lebo’s book, 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America, is available here: Amazon USAmazon UK

The space race was one of the key battlegrounds during the Cold War. And as the space race became ever more important during the 1950s and 1960s, chimps became a key part of the US space program. Andrew Walls explains.

Ham the chimp, prior to his test flight in January 1961.

Ham the chimp, prior to his test flight in January 1961.

The era of the spacefaring chimp

The era of the rocket monkeys was a confusing one. Both for the chimps themselves and for those working towards the eventual moon landing. The Cold War was in full swing and the American and Soviet space programs were battling for ideological supremacy. The Soviets had just sent two dogs, Belka and Strelka, up into the Earth’s orbit and had touched them down safely.

The American public wanted a similar milestone for the American space program. So when Ham touched down in the Mercury capsule the public treated him not like a research animal and more like a “short, hairy astronaut”. Gifts and flowers began arriving for Ham. People wanted his autograph. He was one of those golden age American heroes that made people weep with pride.

This didn’t thrill Alan Shepard, who was to go up following Ham’s safe return to prove its safety for humans. Neither really piloted the craft. They both just sat there and let the guys on the ground prove the flights were safe. Alan Shepard in short wasn’t thrilled with this monkey stealing his thunder and reasonably chose not to attend the furry American hero’s funeral some years later.


Space Chimps Made In America

Albert was the first chimponaut to be launched into space. The term launched is right because they strapped him to a V-2 rocket and let him suffocate during the flight. Albert ll, his successor, was killed when the V-2 rocket he was strapped to had a parachute failure. During this suicidal flight Albert ll became the first monkey in space after passing the Karman line of 100km above sea level. In fact the first Albert to survive the landing was Albert Vl, who along with his 11 mouse crewmates touched down safely. However, once they touched down, the monkeys weren’t finished yet.

Next came the battery of medical tests which ascertained what impacts, if any, weightlessness and other phenomena of space travel had on them. They wisely stopped numbering the chimps and just started giving them nicknames. So “Baker” was the first chimp to survive both the flight and the post flight operations. At the age of 27, Baker was buried on the grounds of the United States Space & Rocket Center. Ham, our American hero and Enos, his successor, were the two most well-known astrochimps but there were many others who lived and died with little fanfare.

Ham the chimp is welcomed back with a 'handshake' after his January 1961 flight on the  Mercury Redstone  rocket.

Ham the chimp is welcomed back with a 'handshake' after his January 1961 flight on the Mercury Redstone rocket.

Furious George

Beyond the States, Russia, France, Argentina and Iran have all launched their own chimps - most of whom also perished during their flights. Astronauts dying mid-flight has always been horrendous for space programs. The Columbia and Challenger disasters crippled the American space program. So for riskier flights, especially during the initial testing phases, it made sense to send a chimp who will garner far less media attention in the event of a malfunction. Chimps are very similar to humans biologically and it is reasonable to assume that any effects they experience from space flight could also be experienced by a human.

What most people don’t realize is scientists of the time had no idea of what to expect from people in space. No person had ever been that far from the ground before. It just hadn’t been possible. We know now that people are fine in space with the appropriate precautions being taken. At the time, however, they were just guessing. Would lessened gravity distort people’s eyeballs and blind them? Maybe the change in weight of body parts would restrict movement, leaving the pilot unable to control the ship at altitude. Would the space radiation kill people before they could safely land? NASA, the Soviet space program and the rest of the world had absolutely no clue. So they sent up chimps and hoped for the best.


Monkey Business

The use of chimps in aerospace was an unfortunate necessity of the time. A space program that had as many astronauts die as chimps did would have been cancelled and condemned very quickly. Chimps were a necessary sacrifice in the vital quest for information. But I want to finish this story with a happy ending. One about what happened to the chimps after the space programs no longer needed them. This story reinforces where using chimps or any surrogates as research tools can go wrong when the agency using them doesn’t respect them as intelligent organisms.

In the 1970s the Air Force decided it no longer needed its chimp colony. The space race was finished; they had all the information launching chimps could give them. So they began leasing them to medical facilities in New York and New Mexico State. That lasted for a while.


Gorilla Warfare

Then in 1997 they decided to officially “retire” them forever. Luckily that didn’t mean putting them to sleep. The Air Force would instead sell the chimps on the open market. In a mock “bidding” process, they only considered one bid, which came from The Coulston Foundation. This foundation had a horrendous track record of animal cruelty and had once had 300 chimps seized because of negligent care. Important people asked that instead these chimps go to a sanctuary.

They still had memories of Ham and other chimp sacrifices in the Space Race and wanted these chimps to be treated with some respect and dignity. Here’s where Dr. Carole Noon comes in. With the backing of Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Roger Fouts, Noon fought hard for the chimps to be moved to a sanctuary. The Air Force, in what they must have thought was a “show of good faith”, awarded 30 chimps to Dr. Noon and the rest to The Coulston Foundation. Dr. Noon was less than pleased. She raised the funds herself and built a sanctuary in Florida. After a year-long court battle she finally won custody of the remaining 21 chimps and moved them to her sanctuary. Today she operates the Save the Chimp foundation which is where these chimps are living out their days peacefully and without testing.


Chimpy Meadows

A life of rest and peace is a fitting end for the descendants of the monkeys who helped us reach space. But the fact that the Air Force was going to condemn them to an abusive testing facility reaffirms the lack of respect they have for these animals’ intelligence and their contribution to the space program. Moving forward it would serve any agency using animals for testing to consider the following: Will this test give us information that could not be obtained otherwise? Can we use people instead without putting those people through some significant risk? And in the event they do decide animals are necessary: Are we treating these animals with respect and dignity both during the testing process and afterwards?

Thank you astro-chimps the world over for your sacrifices. You may not realize it, but you’ve helped to start something which could change humanity’s destiny forever.


For more of Andrew Walls’ writing visit his space and entrepreneurship blog: Landing Attempts.

Out of respect for the chimps discussed in this article, Landing Attempts has made a donation to the Save The Chimps Foundation founded by Dr. Noon. Save the Chimps works to reclaim and house chimps affected by biomedical testing facilities. They deserve our support and respect.


Roach, Mary. Packing for Mars.

Cassidy, David and Davy Kristin. Space Chimps.

Wall, Mike. Scientific American.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones