This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of mankind’s—and America’s—greatest achievements: landing a man on the moon and bringing him home safely. In the midst of the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights and a decade scarred by assassinations, Apollo 11 reminded the world—and the American people—that America, while imperfect, is a great and good nation that can do great and good things. Oh, how we need to be re-reminded of this today, in this cynical age marked by deep distrust of our institutions, as political leaders label fellow Americans “evil” and use words to divide us and vow to “punish” their opponents, as our narrowcast nation turns inward and focuses on its handhelds rather than the heavens.
Apollo 11 rocketed off the launch pad on July 16, 1969, landed on the moon July 20 and returned home July 24.
Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins made the historic journey, which covered some 470,000 miles. Armstrong and Aldrin would spend 21 hours, 38 minutes and 21 seconds on the lunar surface. After they made history, the men of Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, west of Hawaii. And a transfixed world watched it all. Perhaps more accurately and indeed more profoundly: America, in a daring expression of its openness, allowed the world to watch it all.
To get Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon (the hard part) and back to earth safely (the harder part), America enlisted the talents some 300,000 people, spent the 2018 equivalent of upwards of $200 billion, constructed a rocket that stood taller than the Statue of Liberty and flew faster than 7,700 feet per second, and created new technologies and indeed entirely new fields of science.
Yet the Apollo program was not just a towering technological-scientific feat. It was an important element of American foreign policy, a reflection of our liberal values, and, yes, an effort to defend our interests against a foe that sought our destruction. Seven years before Apollo 11, President John Kennedy captured the multilayered nature of America’s mission to the moon by arguing that America would either cede the heavens “to a hostile flag of conquest” or plant “a banner of freedom and peace” in space.
The geopolitical dimensions of the Apollo program can be glimpsed in the mission of Apollo 8, which was a crucial precursor to Apollo 11. Apollo 8 was transformed from a relatively simple earth-orbiting test flight into a daring six-day journey around the moon due to what the Soviets were attempting: U.S. intelligence assets, as Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman recalls, “had information that the Soviets were planning on sending a man around the moon, in the year of 1968.”
With the Soviets plotting to beat the U.S. into lunar orbit and planning to land a cosmonaut on the moon soon thereafter, America’s policymakers ordered NASA to abandon the carefully crafted timeline for the Apollo program—what Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders calls an “inch-by-inch, one-step-at-a-time approach”—in favor of a Hail Mary audible.
After Sputnik and Gagarin and the Apollo 1 tragedy, the policymakers concluded that another second-place finish in the political-economic-industrial-military-technological struggle with the Soviets would be a devastating blow for America and the West. They reckoned, rightly, that America needed to win the race to the moon to prove to a teetering world that communism wasn’t the inevitable wave of the future—that a system founded on individual liberty, self-government, free enterprise, and an open acknowledgment of the Creator could match and indeed best a system founded on centralized authority, top-down control, collectivism and antitheism.
It’s often forgotten or at best footnoted that Apollo 8 marked the first time humans left the earth’s orbit. What must never be forgotten is what Borman, Anders and Jim Lovell did as they entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968. NASA instructed them to “say something appropriate” for the historic occasion. The entire world was listening. And thanks to the camerawork of Anders, the world was seeing itself in a new way—as a beautiful, albeit fragile, blue and green and white and tan marble, seemingly alone in the vast expanse of space.
Of course, the world was not and is not alone, as the men of Apollo 8 reminded us that Christmas Eve, with words that must have brought a smile to the Creator’s face:
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night...And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. And God called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called the Seas. And God saw that it was good.
Borman closed with these poignant words: “Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good earth.”
It’s unimaginable that a Soviet cosmonaut would have said something similar. We know he wouldn’t have been allowed to quote from the Bible or share a blessing or mention the Creator. For that matter, he wouldn’t have had any role in deciding what to say. A script would have been written by someone somewhere in the vast, faceless Soviet bureaucracy, and the cosmonaut would have been required to read from it. Just consider what Gagarin said after his return to earth: “I have completed this flight in the name of our Fatherland, in the name of the great Soviet people, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” adding later, “I looked and looked, but I didn't see God.”
The Apollo 8 crew, by contrast, looked upon creation and couldn’t help but see the Creator.
When Apollo 11 landed on the moon a few months later, Aldrin didn’t praise a president or political party; he acknowledged that his journey and his life were dependent on his savior. He began by inviting “each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.” He then quietly quoted from John 15 and celebrated communion on another world, whispering, “I am the vine and you are the branches...Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit. For you can do nothing without me.”
It says something profound about America—whatever her faults—that when she sent her sons into the heavens, they pointed mankind toward the God of creation.
These stories about the Apollo program serve as helpful guideposts 50 years after Armstrong took his “small step” into history.
To be sure, America's mission in space today is less about prestige and more about pragmatic interests than in Armstrong’s day. Space is more congested and contested than in 1969, which means it requires some power or group of powers to enforce rules of the road and norms of behavior. If America and its allies don’t play that role—if, to borrow Kennedy’s words, we fail to defend the “banner of freedom and peace” Apollo 11 planted in space—we will jeopardize our ability to keep the peace earth.
In a dramatic departure from the interest in and support for the space program Americans had in 1969, most Americans are oblivious to how much we depend on space for our needs today—communications, commerce, air travel, ground transport, emergency services. (Of the 1,300 functioning satellites orbiting earth, 568 are American. A Space Foundation report reveals a global space economy of more than $323 billion. More than 221,500 Americans work in the space sector. Non-government U.S. space spending tops $32 billion annually.) And most Americans are oblivious to how much our enemies are threatening U.S. interests and undermining international norms of behavior in space.
The Pentagon’s latest report on China notes that Beijing successfully launched 38 space vehicles in 2018 and “continues development of multiple counterspace capabilities designed to degrade and deny adversary use of space-based assets during a crisis or conflict.” A 2016 Pentagon report adds, “PLA writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance…and communications satellites.’” Toward that end, China has conducted three reckless tests of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs).
Likewise, recent years have seen the Russian military test new ASATs, launch satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations” (military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites in order to disrupt or disable them), and deploy 37 satellites on a single rocket.
The Russians and Chinese know that America’s military depends on space-based assets. Missile-defense warships prowling the Pacific, soldiers patrolling Afghanistan, UCAVs circling over Yemen and Somalia, fighter-bombers loitering over Syria, air squadrons and armored battalions protecting the Baltics, carrier strike groups defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Navy taskforces and Marine Expeditionary Units keeping an eye on Iran in the Persian Gulf, submarines serving as a silent deterrent, sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese and North Korean nukes, communications connecting commanders, troops, weapons systems, bases and allies—all of these rely on space. “There is no soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, anywhere in the world that is not critically depending on what we provide in space,” explains Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
These critical dependencies on our side and worrisome developments on the other side underscore why policymakers have decided to stand up a military branch devoted to defending America’s interests in space. Just as maritime trade and seaborne threats obliged Americans to create a navy, just as commercial air travel and airborne threats obliged Americans to create an air force, a mix of economic opportunities and security risks oblige us to create a military branch dedicated to defending our interests and assets in space.
Media types have mocked the president’s decision to order development of a Space Force. Several outlets have panned it as a “Space Farce.” What the giggling pundits don’t know is that this isn’t a new idea—and is anything but a farce:
- In the 1990s, the Clinton administration adopted a space policy directing the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”
- In 2000, a congressionally-appointed commission openly contemplated the establishment of “a Space Corps within the Air Force” and concluded that “in the longer term” it may necessary to create “a military department for space”—a U.S. Space Force.
- In 2016, John Hamre, deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, argued, “We are not well organized to deal with the new challenges we face in space.” He mentioned as possible alternatives: creating a full-fledged Space Force, carving out “a Space Service...within the Department of the Air Force,” or “elevating the Space Command to become equal in stature to the Strategic Command.”
- In 2017, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) called for “creation, under the secretary of the Air Force, of a new Space Corps, as a separate military service.”
- In May of this year, a bipartisan group of astronauts, flag officers, and defense and intelligence officials led by former Defense Secretary William Perry signed an open letter arguing that “establishment of a new military service for space is necessary for putting America on a path to effectively deter conflict from beginning in or extending into space, and, if deterrence fails, to defeat hostile actions and protect our economic and national security interests in space.”
Like the men and women of the Apollo program, Perry and his cosignatories know that, left unattended, space will either be dominated by our enemies or overwhelmed by chaos. Neither alternative serves America’s interests.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.