The Unexpected Gift of Apollo

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J.F. Kennedy’s We Choose to Go to the Moon speech of 1962 electrified the world. It was intended to persuade the American people to support the Apollo program, the national effort to land a man on the Moon.

Half a decade earlier was a world rigged with 60,000 hair-triggered nuclear weapons; Enough to end all higher life forms several times over. The combatants were the two most powerful nations on Earth, and they were locked in a deadly embrace, each vowing that they would rather see everything we love destroyed than submit to the will of the other. The possibility that 2,000 largest cities on Earth would be reduced to rubble in the space of an afternoon was a fear that every individual had – a nuclear Ragnarok was literally a-push-of-a-button away. This was the Cold War era.

The Tsar Bomba detonated by what was then the Soviet Union in 1961 was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created and remains the most powerful man-made explosion.

The nuclear rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had another by-product. The Apollo missions to the Moon were an extension of the arms race that raged between them.

Sending people to orbit the Earth or go to the Moon requires big, reliable, powerful rockets – precisely the same technology you need to carry a nuclear warhead halfway around the planet to destroy your enemy’s largest cities.

President Kennedy delivered a speech that ramped up the space race, uttering the famous lines: “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.” It contained much that was remarkably prophetic – but not a word about a scientific objective for going to the Moon. No questions about the Moon’s origin or the hope of bringing back samples to analyse. No, the Apollo missions were conceived as a demonstration of the superior power and precision of America’s strategic missiles, a dick-waving contest if you will.

But a funny thing happened to us on our way to the Moon. We looked homeward and discovered another world – our own.

This is the first image ever taken by humans of the whole Earth. Photographed by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972. It is the most reproduced image in history.

This was the dawn of a new consciousness because, for the first time, we inhabitants of Earth could step back and see it as it really is – a planet without borders, one world, indivisible, and kind of small in the cosmic context, thus arose the name ‘Blue Marble’.

Whatever the reason we first mustered the enormous resources required for the Apollo program, however, mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected gift of Apollo. This was a silver lining in the Cold War. A project conceived in the deadly competition made us recognize our community.

The Apollo program reminded us that we are explorers, that we are still pioneers, that we’d barely begun, that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.

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