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 US| Amazon UK), the answer is much broader and deeper than President Kennedy’s original vision for achievement in space.
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.