Lessons for India and ISRO from the American voyage to the moon
One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind—these words by Neil Armstrong (first man on the moon) still echo that monumental achievement. The year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the feat. A lot has been written about NASA’s Apollo mission that placed a man on the moon and made the US the most potent force in outer space, taking it ahead of its rival, the erstwhile Soviet Union. It is interesting to look at the conditions that persuaded the US to take steps towards a manned mission to the moon.
Prior to that, the US was lagging behind USSR, and the pressure was to outdo the Soviets, who were increasing the gap in technological superiority with successful space missions since Sputnik 1. In fact, 1957-61 can be termed as golden years of Soviet space programmes. In the US, the presidency changed from Dwight D Eisenhower to John F Kennedy. Many space historians have pointed out that under Eisenhower, the US was trying its best to beat the Soviet Union in the space race, but wasn’t able to do so. The critics of Eisenhower, especially his political rivals including future Presidents like Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, got an opportunity to target his administration’s failures in the race.
Media portrayed it as the US losing the Cold War itself. The launch of the Sputnik by the Soviets was projected as a moment of crisis for the US and the term ‘Sputnik crisis’ came into being. This is despite the fact that NASA came into being as an institution under Eisenhower, and American engineers and scientists were working to change the ‘perception’ about the capability of the US in outer space. During 1957-61, the US was investing heavily in making NASA a premier space research and coordinating agency. Things took time because, unlike USSR, the US was democratic where every big and small decision was questioned, discussed, debated and scrutinised.
By the time Kennedy came to power, the perceived ‘missile gap’ between the US and USSR was doing a serious damage to the former’s image as a superpower. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s space travel in 1961 turned the situation alarming, even though the US was launching more satellites than USSR. The time was now ripe for the Americans to make some big announcements to send a strong message.
On May 25, 1961, a month after Gagarin’s feat, Kennedy delivered a speech to the joint session of US Congress: “US 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. Recognising the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead time, and recognising the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”
The speech outlined the US space policy where Kennedy accepted that the Soviets were leading the race. A year later, on September 12, 1962, Kennedy announced that the US would be sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade. He remarked, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Although the task was extremely costly, taking this risk proved extremely successful for the US in the long run. This whole episode is a great lesson for the critiques of ISRO’s Gaganyaan mission. What they need to understand is that for India to become a formidable space power, it needs to take risks—much like what the US did in the 1960s—to reap the benefits afterwards.