Article by Rachel Frodsham. Edited and researched by Rob Russell.
The words ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ will echo throughout history for generations to come; the first mission outside the Earth’s gravitational pulls towards our only natural satellite. In the midst of the turmoil and threat of the Cold War, it came as a glimmer of hope for the future of technology and mankind alike through the adventure of Apollo 11 and its men. But was this really ‘one giant leap for mankind’ or one giant leap for American supremacy? In their success, the Americans managed to overtake the Soviet’s space effort of Yuri Gagarin’s first human journey into space – completing 24,000 miles in just half an hour in his orbit of the Earth in 1961; demonstrating yet another portrayal of American dominance and success over other powers. In a race for outer space imperialism, America’s Wernher von Braun and Russia’s Sergei Kolorev acted as leading men in developing the technology for these expeditions, and played out the battle between superpowers towards this climax of landing on the moon. It was however portrayed to the rest of the world as the overall human success of mankind into the unknown universe.
Of course, it is easy to underestimate the significance of this technological phenomenon in a time when you can’t turn the street corner without seeing people with iPods, iPads, laptops and other technological gadgets. But technological innovations were vital in the perception of modernity during the time of the on-going threat of nuclear war. And what greater technological achievement than moving out of the Earth’s gravitational zone and landing on a satellite which for thousands of years people have worshipped and stared at in awe?
By looking at the politics and events of the Cold War developing in the 1960s, it is easy to conclude that this mission was a statement of American’s dominance as a superpower. Proxy wars such as those in Korea and Vietnam saw worldwide anxiety spread. These coincided with an increase in expenditure for American military troops in 1961, showing that the tensions between Soviet and American superpowers were increasing rapidly on a military scale as well as political. Meanwhile, the Space Race was developing following the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, by Russia in 1957. This offset the fight to establish power beyond the realms of where mankind had been before, a movement to further imperialism as it was then known. And while Yuri Gagarin may have achieved the orbit in 1961, this was just a warm up for the Americans. Their technology would prove to overcome that of the other nations in their bid to become the ultimate superpower.
The very drama which was involved in Apollo 11’s flight is enough to show the magnitude of the mission. Requiring a speed of 25,000 miles per hour along exactly the right course, and to detach from the mother ship at a specific point was all part of the hazardous expedition requiring technology beyond what had been experienced before. The astronaut Michael Collins who accompanied Nick Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin later wrote ‘I figured out chances for a successful landing and return were not much better than 50/50’. Therefore once the successful landing of the space shuttle Eagle had been achieved on the moon, the technological race was won. American supremacy in the race for technological modernity was confirmed.
However, if I were to be less cynical, it was a huge success for mankind as a whole. Yes, there is unequivocally the context of the Cold War which must be considered, and America’s aims of being superior within this. Even the much rehearsed phone call made to Armstrong once he had landed from President Nixon saying ‘Neil and Buzz…this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made’ is littered with American supremacy – the most poignant and significant mission to successfully land in Space was epitomized by the American flag left fluttering in the dark night sky. While the broadcast of this American success was shown throughout the world, the focus was upon mankind, and their success in reaching the shattering heights of the moon. The plaque left by Armstrong and Aldrin was inscribed; ‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind’. When watching footage from peoples’ reactions to the first landing on the moon, it is clear to see the glee, happiness and awe from people of all nationalities and cultures in the success of man in doing this, not the success of Americans. This is what mankind had accomplished – the final success of space exploration had been achieved. However, even within this very inscription, President Nixon’s signature ensures that if there were to be any recognition, he was the representative from ‘the planet Earth’ who planted this. Not Armstrong, Aldrin or Collins – but the President of the United States of America.
Looking back on this today, with the Cold War but a distant memory, and with cities of satellites presiding in space, an outpost on Mars, and countless missions into Space, it is easy to become cynical about the reasoning behind this initial mission. Nowadays it does not seem so obscure for man to head into space. But then, despite the American tinge on every part of that mission, it was a hugely significant success for all of mankind. The development of technology to that extent, with the ability to watch it from all over the world, was surely ‘a giant leap for mankind’, as well as American supremacy.
- Neil Armstrong in addition to being the first man to walk on the moon, fought in the Korean War and was a University Professor in later life.
- Of the three astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission, Michael Collins was the only man not to step out of the shuttle onto the moon.
- The successful landing in 1969 was the fulfilment of former President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade in 1961.