This is the week that we celebrate the first human landing on the moon. Credit will be taken by many different interests for their role in this great human achievement. Curiously, the Apollo moon landing of a half-century ago has great relevance to today’s hotly contested Democratic primary race. NASA’s landing on the moon was a demonstration of successful application of Democratic Socialism — a much discussed matter in Democratic circles these days.
Curiously, this democratic socialist concept of NASA had its origins under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.
The 1950s were a period of vast global expansion by the United States — the only World War II power left unscathed by the fighting. After the war we captured the majority of the Nazi rocket scientists, including Wernher von Braun who oversaw the development and manufacture of the infamous V-2 rockets at Peenemunde, the secret Nazi rocket-testing site. There von Braun supervised concentration camp prisoners who produced the rockets that flew across the English Channel to attack our British allies.
Von Braun’s team of German rocket scientists were brought to the US and re-established at a secret Army base near Huntsville, Alabama. Concurrently, the Soviet Union, our World War II ally, developed its own atomic and thermonuclear weapons. The arms race was on.
Military thinking at the time held that new delivery systems had to be developed to deliver nuclear weapons. World War II’s Army Air Corps, re-constituted as the US Air Force, first developed the B-36, then the B-47, and finally the B-52 intercontinental bombers as nuclear weapon delivery systems. The ultimate goal was to deliver the weapons by ballistic missiles from North America to potential adversaries in Europe and Asia, in particular the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.
The task of developing effective intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems was pursued competitively between the US Air Force with its Navaho rocket, the Navy with its Vanguard, and the Army with its Redstone missile system. Each agency attempted to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite — a clear indication of ballistic launch capability. Each military branch failed repeatedly. The competitive approach failed.
In 1956, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik — the first Earth-orbiting spacecraft. A short week later they successfully launched Sputnik II, which carried Laika, a dog, thereby demonstrating the successful creation of habitability in space.
President Eisenhower recognized that the three competing military branches had failed in launching an Earth-orbiting spacecraft. He then led the development of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A democratically elected Congress passed the legislation. The taxpayers made a social investment of capital to carry out a national objective, making NASA a Democratic Socialist success.
After NASA’s establishment, the Soviet Union continued to have leadership in the space race but NASA was slowly gaining.
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 brought the world close to nuclear disaster. Earth teetered on the brink of nuclear war. In the end, the USSR agreed to withdraw its short-range missiles from Cuba. Shortly thereafter, US missiles threatening the Soviet Union were withdrawn from our NATO ally Turkey. The nuclear superpowers had stepped back from the brink, but the danger of nuclear brinkmanship remained.
To reorient the dangerous competition for nuclear weapon superiority, President Kennedy proposed a national goal of landing humans on the moon. Although the Soviet Union never formally accepted the competition, it carried out a competitive lunar effort.
Kennedy entrusted the Apollo program to NASA, the same democratic socialist enterprise that had orbited Explorer I, America’s first Earth-orbiting spacecraft, which was developed at Pasadena’s NASA facility, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Fifty years ago this week we celebrate the Apollo 11 spacecraft landing on the moon and returning to Earth. Let’s also remember this week that Wall Street did not put humans on the moon. That was accomplished by a democratic socialist endeavor called NASA, which was established under a Republican president. n
Robert M. Nelson is an astrophysicist at the Planetary Science Institute. He is a US delegate to the International Astronomical Union, a member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and a NASA selected member of the Cassini Saturn Orbiter Mission. He is also a Delegate to the California Democratic Party State Central Committee, and a member of the California Democratic Party Executive Board.