Commentary: Moon landing’s achievements and challenges

As we celebrate the half-century mark of the moon landing, the event’s importance remains, as do challenges in its wake. This article evaluates both areas.

There are a number of accomplishments to point to pertaining to moon exploration. From the standpoint of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, the Apollo 11 mission represented a victory in the race to Earth’s only natural satellite, albeit one that was anything but certain. From

Sputnik in 1957 to the mid-1960’s, Russian cosmonauts logged a series of space “firsts.” Yet, American science and political will combined to outpace Soviet missions by the end of the decade, culminating in the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

Further, the initial moon landing and its successor missions certainly conveyed a can-do spirit that went beyond technological prowess or scientific expertise.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

That positive mentality included the ability to weigh options and select the best alternative. Perhaps that still was best demonstrated during the Apollo 13 mission, when the troika of astronauts successfully returned to Earth after an explosion crippled their craft.

Without a doubt, the 1969-1972 moon landings stimulated the wish to search the heavens more. Ultimately, most planets have been visited by flyovers; several unmanned vehicles have been active on Mars for years; and America is planning missions to explore selected moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune.

Looking back 50 years, the period of the first moon landing was intensely political and just as partisan as in contemporary times. However, the difference is that politicians then knew when to play it tough and when to march together. The moon landing was such a galvanizing national event that it couldn’t help but perpetuate shared pride, and it did: all Americans got to bask in the glory of the achievement.

Of course, NASA does not have a monopoly on space exploration. Today, it is not just Russia which has indicated its intention to return to the moon, as both India and China have announced ambitious plans for its exploration. Ironically, 1969 saw the last balanced Federal budget for thirty years, but we haven’t experienced a balanced federal budget since 2001 and the national debt exceeds $22.5 trillion.

Those space-related projects which have followed the moon landing — including the Hubble space telescope, the space shuttle, and the International Space Station–have demonstrated the risks and rewards of searching the universe.

Partly for financial reasons, NASA has partnered with private companies to facilitate future space exploration. While seemingly self-serving in the short-run, this may be best path toward quicker landing on other heavenly bodies, let alone human exploration of same.

Granted, there are dangers such as space junk, radiation, and asteroid collision to confront, and agreed-upon safety measures for dual-run missions remain vague. Still, the yearning for knowledge doesn’t cease beyond Earth’s orbit, and the excitement of discovery guarantees new destinations.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on space issues.

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