Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel in space and orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.
Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel in space and orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961. Keystone/Getty Images
The Soviet's successful launch of an astronaut into space further fueled the United States' ambitions to go to the moon.
The Soviet's successful launch of an astronaut into space further fueled the United States' ambitions to go to the moon. NASA Images
Forty years after a small, spidery-looking spaceship carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the surface of the moon, NASA is working toward another moon shot. But this time around, the reasons to go to the moon are much more complex than in the days of the space race.
The Cold War loomed large on May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy spoke before a special joint session of Congress and declared, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
After all, the previous month, the Soviet Union had blasted Yuri Gagarin in orbit around the Earth. He was the first human in space. America sent Alan Shepard up a few weeks later, but his flight just went up and back, and didn't make an orbit.
Taking The Cold War Into Space
For President Kennedy, the implications were troubling:
"If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take," he told Congress in a speech full of references to the serious dangers facing the United States, including the threat of nuclear attack.
The moon was just another place for the Cold War to play out, says Roger Launius, the senior curator in space history at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
"We really went to the moon because of the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union — a competition on a broad front between two superpowers over control of the world, essentially," Launius says. "The United States wanted to demonstrate to everyone in the world, including the Soviet Union, that we were second to none when it came to science and technology."
And the whole world did watch as Neil Armstrong took those first dusty steps on July 20, 1969.
A New Approach To The Moon
But these days, the landscape of international affairs is dramatically different. And many people hardly notice that — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — space travelers from Russia, America, Europe, Canada and Japan all hang out together in the huge international space station, just a couple hundred miles up.
The aging space shuttles that go there are supposed to be retired next year. Back in 2004, President George Bush gave a speech saying NASA should design new rockets and capsules that could not only go to the station, but also return to the moon by 2020.
That's what the agency has been working toward. But in an era with no Cold War, when the United States is the unquestioned leader in space exploration, some people wonder if this moon plan makes any sense.
"That is a question that I hear quite frequently," says NASA's John Olson, who helps direct the agency's exploration program at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "They say, 'Hey, we've been there, done that, got the T-shirt, why, why are we looking at that?'"
This time around, NASA is taking a different approach to the moon, says Olson.
"We're not going back as a race, we're not going back for flags and footsteps," he says. "We're going back for really what is the beginning of a journey."
He says this time NASA is making a sustained, more affordable effort to move to the moon and beyond, on to Mars. And, he says, there are multiple reasons to work on these goals.
"The first is about human civilization," he says, "it's about our innate desire and yearning to explore the unknown and to expand." Other reasons include technology development, scientific exploration, economic expansion, international cooperation and engaging the public.
So the message isn't as simple as it was back in 1969. But Olson thinks "each person is somewhat individual" and will be inspired by different angles of the project.
"It's also about believing in something 'bigger' and committing to the concept that, much like going to the moon the first time, we learned that nothing is impossible if you focus your resources and your time and talent on that endeavor," he says.
But some scientists think that NASA could make that same point by going to other destinations besides the moon. One group of space enthusiasts, The Planetary Society, recently put out a report calling for the Obama administration to consider other places that new rockets could take astronauts, like near-Earth asteroids.
Some asteroids would be easier to get to than the moon, and it's important to learn about them in case one of them ever threatens the Earth, says Jim Bell, the society's president.
"And they're a new destination," Bell says. "Let's not discount the newness angle in helping to inspire and motivate space exploration."
He says his group isn't anti-moon. They just wonder if it should loom so large in NASA's plans.
"I think there would be a time in a long-term, long-focused, sustainable program when it makes sense to go to the moon," says Bell. "I'm not sure that 2020 is that time. It's awfully soon."
Planning For Human Spaceflight
That timetable might change. President Obama's administration has put together a panel of outside experts, headed by aerospace leader Norman Augustine, the former head of Lockheed Martin, to reassess all of NASA's future human spaceflight plans.
At a press conference after the panel's first public meeting, Augustine said he and his colleagues had been asked to think freely in considering the space program. "And so we're going to do just that," said Augustine.
"We will look at the full spectrum of possible destinations," he said, "but before we start looking at destinations, we'll try to address the broader question of what's our objective? What are we trying to accomplish?"
The committee will lay out options for Obama by the end of the summer. Augustine acknowledges that the Cold War is over, and the economy is distressed. But, he says, he still thinks space exploration has the power to inspire people.
"I can remember how excited people were when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, and Mike circled the moon, what a shot it gave this nation at a time it really needed it," said Augustine, adding that when he talks to young people in his travels now, "I think there's still a lot of excitement."