Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review

On the 30th anniversary of man's first walk on the moon, John Parrington looks at the real reasons for the space race

No one likes being deceived. One of the distressing features of coming to terms with the reality of capitalist society is learning that events which inspired us as children were based on quite different motives than we perceived at the time. Thirty years ago this month, on 20 July 1969, a human being stood on the surface of the moon for the very first time. I cannot have been the only child who truly believed Neil Armstrong when he stepped out from the lunar lander and uttered those famous words, 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'

The drive to discover and explore the natural world is surely one of humanity's endearing attributes. Who but a total cynic could not be moved by the beauty of our solar system as it has unfolded over the past few decades? Whether it is the awesome volcanoes and canyons of Mars, the boiling hell of Venus, the aquamarine beauty of the blue gas giant Uranus or its strange, scrambled moon, Miranda, it is hard to know whether to class these images as science or art.

Yet space exploration has been inextricably bound up with another rather more sinister tendency the drive within capitalism towards war. The pioneering efforts in rocketry of characters like the American Robert H Goddard were largely ignored or ridiculed by the establishment. What helped to change this attitude was the very practical wartime demonstration, by the German V-2 missile, that rockets could be powerful weapons of mass destruction.

After the war everyone wanted to be friends with the V-2's architect, Wernher von Braun. The fact that the missiles had left 2,770 Britons dead and 21,000 wounded made any advances that the British government would have liked to have made towards von Braun and his team a little awkward. In any case, the US had the money, and for the next 20 years von Braun was at the centre of the US space effort. He designed the Saturn V rocket which carried the astronauts to the moon.

The link between space exploration and military aims did not disappear after the war. In one of the first interviews given in the US in 1945, von Braun envisaged an orbiting rocket, a primary task of which would be the observation of 'troop movements' on the earth below. In 1946 a highly confidential US government report drew attention to the 'great military value, of satellites. It also suggested that this potential be deliberately underplayed, the emphasis being put instead on the peaceful uses of this 'remarkable technological advance'.

At the height of the Cold War the announcement, in 1954, of plans for an International Geophysics Year seemed heaven sent. Every country in the world was invited to try its hand at launching a research satellite during 1957-58. What a perfect cover! In 1955 President Eisenhower approved the secret plans for the first US spy satellite. It seemed certain that the US would be making all the running in the race into space. What no one expected was that the Russians might get there first.

The successful launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite on 4 October 1957 sent a tremor through the US establishment. The Russians were supposed to be a race of backward farmers, whose country's technology was being stretched to the limit just keeping their tractors running. And yet here they were launching a 183 pound satellite into space, while the US was still struggling to get a five pound one off the ground. Democrat Lyndon B Johnson was one US politician willing to provide a voice for the hysteria which swept the US caused by the launch of Sputnik. Johnson talked of how the sky above his Texas ranch was now full of ominous question marks: 'I don't want to go to sleep by a Communist moon.' In the midst of his tirades Johnson let slip the real reasons behind the space race: 'If, out in space, there is the ultimate position--from which total control of the earth may be exercised--then our national goal... must be to win and hold that position.'

In the context of the Cold War, civilian and military goals had become intertwined. The conquest of space had now become a crucial psychological test. An ostensibly civilian space agency would also provide very useful cover for the development of new intercontinental rocket systems and spy satellites. So it was that Nasa was born in 1958.

Things had still to go the US's way, however. In 1961 Russia again pipped the US to the post, sending the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. Only one goal seemed to be left. In May 1961, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle, President Kennedy vowed that the US would put a man on the moon within the decade.

The lunar landings still stand as a measure of humankind's technological achievements. From a scientific point of view, however, they were of extremely limited value. Such, at least, was the view of geophysicists at the prestigious Carnegie Institute, who voted their disapproval of the Apollo programme by 110 to three. What was perhaps most surprising was how quickly the excitement over the lunar landing dissipated. By the time the astronauts made their successful return to earth, interest was already beginning to wane. One factor in this was that there were other, more terrestrial distractions. The Vietnam War was, after all, in full swing. The irony was that the whole point of the moon landing had been to demonstrate the US's overwhelming technological superiority. And yet here it was being trounced by a tiny Third World country.

The writer Norman Mailer could not make up his mind as to whether the lunar project was 'the noblest expression of the 20th century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity'. Mailer had identified the contradiction at the heart of capitalism itself. On the one hand, the collective inspiration and ingenuity of human beings making possible a voyage into the heavens that would have truly astounded past generations. On the other hand, a system that uses such events as a cover for developing ever more powerful weapons of destruction.