On 9 May, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave a speech outlining how his space company, Blue Origin, would fulfil his long-held dream of building gigantic settlements in space capable of housing millions of people.
Bezos’ presentation began with the iconic footage of Neil Armstrong descending the steps of the Apollo 11 lunar lander. “Wow!” gushed Bezos. “If that does not inspire you, you are at the wrong event!” Armstrong’s “small step” has certainly inspired generations of space enthusiasts, but reducing the Apollo programme to a single, albeit sublime, moment of victory overlooks its complex legacy.
After 1969, Nasa found itself facing a resurgent Soviet space programme as it struggled to sustain public enthusiasm for space exploits that often failed to live up to the high bar set by Apollo. In 1961, the Kennedy administration had chosen to aim for a crewed lunar landing as an inspirational yet feasible goal to prove US supremacy in space technology.
Eight years later, with Kennedy’s mission accomplished, Nasa – hoping to capitalise on the success of Apollo 11 – produced the Space Task Group Report. This expansive and expensive proposal encompassed space stations, Moon bases and crewed missions to Mars. However, the Nixon Administration, eager to reduce space spending, rejected this vision. Nasa was lucky that its proposed new reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, survived subsequent budget cuts.
By the second half of the 1970s, as the tortuous and protracted development process of the Space Shuttle continued, concerns grew about the United States’ slipping status in space leadership. While America’s astronauts were grounded as they waited for the Shuttle to be ready, the Soviets were launching a series of increasingly sophisticated Salyut space stations into orbit.
From 1978 onwards, Soviet space stations became venues for propagandistic displays of socialist solidarity, hosting cosmonauts from the Eastern Bloc and developing countries as part of the ‘Interkosmos’ programme. American space pundits predicted that the Salyuts might soon be replaced by a threatening ‘Kosmograd’ – a permanently occupied Soviet space station. And former Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater pilloried the US for resting on its laurels, declaring: “Our complacency in recent years has given the Russians a decided advantage in the space race.”
Though the first full launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia on 12 April 1981 briefly allayed these fears, it was not long before those concerns returned. The Challenger disaster of 28 January 1986 – in which that orbiter broke up shortly after launch, resulting in the deaths of five astronauts plus two non-Nasa crew, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe – appeared to validate criticisms of the Shuttle as an expensive and unreliable creature of compromise. With astronauts grounded once again, concerns about space leadership returned.
The Soviets’ Mir space station appeared to signal the arrival of the long-heralded Kosmograd. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms took hold, it seemed that the USSR might soon out-cooperate as well as out-compete the United States. To make matters worse, space exploration was no longer the exclusive club that it had been in the 1960s: Japan, China and Europe were now all increasingly assertive presences on what the United States saw as its own frontier of the future. In a 1987 report to Nasa’s Administrator, Dr Sally K Ride – America’s first female astronaut – argued that, as a result of the Challenger disaster, “The United States’ role as the leader of spacefaring nations came into serious question”.
The mirage of the Soviet space challenge dissolved with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 but the US has struggled to find a compelling new goal to capture the public’s imagination. Ambitious Mars-oriented space programmes proposed by Presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush fizzled out amid congressional hostility and the Obama administration’s indifference, respectively. Donald Trump, who criticised Nasa’s current plans, is merely the latest president to propose a bold trip to Mars with no feasible way of paying for it.
Far from basking in the glory of its lunar triumph, the United States has spent the past 50 years glancing nervously over its shoulder, worrying that its hard-won leadership in space will be squandered without a similarly impressive follow-up. Just as America has struggled with the burdens of its self-appointed role as world police, being the foremost space power has proven to be a demanding task. Blue Origin and its commercial competitors – SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – should take note: winning the lead in space exploration is one thing, but maintaining that leadership in the face of determined challengers is quite another.
Thomas Ellis teaches in the department of international history at LSE.
This article first appeared in issue 17 of BBC World Histories Magazine