Man on the moon? Why we said Apollo 11 was an empty, obsessional quest

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New Scientist was opposed to the Apollo missions from the start, and complained for decades that the money to send people into space was being wasted. Why were we so grumpy and pessimistic about putting a man on the moon?

Space 19 July 2019

Neil Armstrong in the lunar module after walking on the moon for the first time.

NASA

In 1961, New Scientist was calling for a halt to the moon race.

Indeed, our 8 June 1961 issue said that the superpowers were squandering resources better spent on earthbound problems. Today, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, it’s surprising to hear such a negative attitude to crewed spaceflight. Nevertheless, our opinion barely changed over the decades, and we maintained our opposition into the 1990s.

Despite New Scientist’s lonely protests, the Apollo missions got underway, and our harrumphing didn’t stop. In our Apollo 8 editorial of 19 December 1968 we said the mission was an “empty, obsessional quest” and “…the true scientific value of the Apollo project is virtually nil”.

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In the same issue we said: “We are forced to the conclusion, time and time again, that the whole manned space business, if its relationship to reality is not of a more ominous nature, is mere prestigious prancing”.

“…the true scientific value of the Apollo project is virtually nil”

The thrust of our complaint was that uncrewed space probes would have done just as good a job for the fraction of the price, and that the vast amounts of money spent sending people into space would have been better spent on “constructive aid” for “underprivileged nations.” In the same issue, we published (wildly incorrect) predictions that there would be 5 billion people living in poverty in the year 2000, which perhaps gives us some context for this editorial line.

Our annoyance at the theatre of the occasion is slightly less forgivable.

Before Armstrong’s first steps we wrote: “If previous missions are anything to by – the entire sequence of Apollo 11 will simply reel itself off like clockwork with an exactitude extending down to the smallest detail. Surely this entire approach is the very antithesis of adventure?”

In the first New Scientist edition after the Apollo 11 moon landing our leader article on 24 July 1969 was mostly worried that the astronauts might have been “infected by the show-biz bug.”

Although we did deign to say the sight of a human being walking on a celestial object other than Earth for the first time in history had a “touching splendour” and the “kangaroo hops of the astronauts had the same emotional potential as a baby’s first earnest, awkward attempts to walk,” we also asked “hadn’t we seen this before?” in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and in cheap, rival magazines rapidly produced to cash in on the occasion (ahem).

The following month, we gave a voice to the “NASA scientists grumbling as moon results roll in”, featuring the complaints of scientists at Houston working on the Apollo project. We mentioned the plight of Dr Eugene Shoemaker, principle investigator for lunar geology, who was 14th on the priority list to receive an official set of pictures from the moon, and who “was eventually given a set by a reporter”.

We also complained that “No scientist astronauts have been named either for the prime or backup crews of the next three lunar landing missions, causing one of the few scientifically qualified astronauts to resign in despair.”

Two years later on 28 January 1971 we published the words of Dr Peter Stubbs, who questioned the true “raison d’être” of this exceedingly costly undertaking: “The Apollo programme has clearly generated a lot of scientific activity of interest to scientists, however secondary this may be to its primary purpose. But the usefulness of planetary science to the wider world is surely even more debatable than that of modern high-energy physics.”

We got closer to the mark in another story quoting Dr Brian O’Leary, one of the 11 out of 1400 scientist-astronaut applicants selected by NASA. After budget cuts, astronaut chief Deke Slayton told him “you may as well face the prospect of long delays and perhaps no flights. We don’t need you around here, at least for the time being.” In response, the beleaguered recruits labelled themselves the “Excess Eleven (XS-11).”

O’Leary said, “I believe that the American space programme can be made worth what we are putting into it if the emphasis on manned flight can be curbed. We should encourage science looking for a mission rather than a mission looking for science.” The story finished by saying “The question on many scientists lips at Houston at the moment is: ‘How can anyone talk of sending men to Mars when we can’t get NASA to do the best possible science on the Moon?’”

You might laugh with us at the absurdity of our anti-Apollo campaigning, but perhaps make a note of 13 December 1972 in your calendar. That was the moment 47 years ago that Eugene Cernan, and the rest of humanity, left the moon for the last time.

So did we have the last laugh, or will we see people step onto the Moon again within our lifetime? Only time (and public opinion) will tell.

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