History will likely remember the moon landings of July 1969 as a remarkable feat of human engineering and science, celebrated by the whole of humankind. However, at the time, NASA’s achievement also served an important political function in the context of the Cold War.
The latter was not just a competition in military capability. The Soviet concept of the Correlation of Forces ensured that the Communist and Western systems would be judged on many different levels. These included social, cultural, sporting, and technological prowess.
By the mid-1960s, the US seemed to be losing the space race. Sputnik was the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth; Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space; Alexei Leonov the first to perform a spacewalk; and Lunik 2 was the first spacecraft to reach the Luna surface.
Thus, it was imperative that the US demonstrate its own technological competence. The Apollo missions were the perfect opportunity. Landing men on the moon, and safely returning them, was a considerable leap over what the Soviets had already achieved. This was important for domestic consumption in the US, but equally important for an international audience, at a time when much of the world was being wooed by the two competing socio-economic systems.
The moon landings reestablished the US, who had initially led the Cold War with the development of nuclear weapons, as the leading technological superpower. It was a lead that would continue to grow over the coming decades, until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, the Soviet system collapsed, at least in part, because it unsuccessfully tried to keep pace with US technological innovation.
Author: Dr David J. Lonsdale