When the crew of Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, Americans hailed the successful completion of the most audacious and complex technological undertaking of the 20th century: landing humans on the moon and returning them safely to earth. Just over eight years before, when President John F. Kennedy proposed the manned lunar landing as the focus of the United States' space program, only one American - Lt. Comdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. - had been into space, on a suborbital lob shot lasting 15 minutes. At the end of the first lunar landing mission, American astronauts had logged more than 5,000 man-hours in space. To the extent that any single event could, the first successful lunar landing mission marked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's development of the capability to explore space by whatever means were appropriate for whatever purposes seemed to serve the national interest.
To many, Apollo 11 demonstrated that the United States had clearly won the "space race" with the Soviet Union, which had been one of the space program's major purposes. By the time that was done, other issues dominated the scene. National interests were not the same in mid-1969 as they had been in 1961. Of the public reaction after Apollo 11, a congressional historian has written,
The high drama of the first landing on the Moon was over. The players and stagehands stood around waiting for more curtain calls, but the audience drifted away. . . . The bloody carnage in Vietnam, the plight of the cities, the revolt on the campuses, the monetary woes of budget deficits and inflation, plus a widespread determination to reorder priorities pushed the manned space effort lower in national support.1
Project Apollo encompassed more than simply sending men to the moon and back. It reflected a determination to show that humans had an important role to play in exploring space, as they had in exploring the unknown comers of the earth in earlier centuries. That proposition was not universally accepted. From the time the space agency determined to put humans into space, many Americans argued vigorously against manned space flight on the grounds that it was unnecessary and inordinately expensive. Space scientists had already shown how much could be done with instruments, and planners were designing spacecraft that would revolutionize communications, weather forecasting, and observation of the earth, all without requiring the presence of people in space. These arguments were difficult to refute. Only when it came to exploring other planets did humans seem superior. For all of their limitations, humans were far more flexible than the most sophisticated robot, capable - as preprogrammed instruments were not - of responding creatively to the unexpected. If people had a place in space exploration, surely it would be on the surface of the moon.
Man's place in space exploration was decided, however, on other grounds. President Kennedy chose to send humans to the moon as a way of demonstrating the nation's technological prowess; and Congress and the nation endorsed his choice. That demonstration made and the tools for lunar exploration developed, Americans would go back to the moon five times, to explore it for the benefit of science.
1. 1. U.S., Congress, House, Toward the Endless Frontier: History of the Committee on Science and Technology, 1959-1979 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), p. 269. This history was written by Ken Hechler, a Ph.D. historian and author of books on political and military history. who served on the House Committee on Science and Technology for 18 years beginning in 1959.