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An interview with Gerard J. DeGroot

To Americans in the 1960s, putting a man on the Moon was a noble, even romantic challenge. "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind," President Kennedy told Congress, "or more important in the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

But in re-examining the Apollo project, historian Gerard J. DeGroot finds it largely an empty dream. In Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (New York University Press), he argues that the Moon race was essentially just a new front in the Cold War, "an immensely expensive distraction of little scientific or cultural worth."

Born in California, DeGroot is professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of 10 books, including The Bomb: A Life (Harvard University Press), which won the Westminster Medal for best book on a war or military topic in 2004. American Scientist Online Managing Editor Greg Ross interviewed him by telephone in January 2007.Gerard J. DeGrootClick to Enlarge Image

What led you to this topic?

I wanted to write this book because I had just finished my book on the atom bomb, which, while at the time being the favorite topic, also left me very depressed. I won't say there didn't seem to be much hope for the world, but it seemed such a cynical topic, which had to be accepted quite fatalistically. And so I felt that I needed to do something positive, and space thrilled me as a boy. I went to publishers with a proposal and was able to sell the book, and then about four or five months into it I found that my conscience told me to write a different book, because it wasn't the memory that I had as a boy—actually, the whole venture of going to space, the politics of space, was a much more interesting story, and unfortunately I was back with the same cynics and manipulators that I'd found when I went and researched the bomb. So I still haven't found my golden topic yet, but it was enlightening, in a way, and that's what's supposed to be a historian's job, to find out that the past wasn't quite as we remembered it to be.

In announcing the Apollo project, Kennedy referred to moving with what he called "the full speed of freedom." Do you think he saw it chiefly as a scientific endeavor, or really as a symbolic contest of ideologies?

I think very definitely the latter. It's very difficult for some people even still, given Kennedy's mystique, to accept that he wasn't quite the person we thought he was. I think the really telling bit comes in a conversation that he has with the NASA administrator James Webb, in which he says, "I don't really care about the moon. I know it's important; I know there are people who really want to go there, but I just want to beat the Russians." So it really comes down to that. It is purely a symbol of American supremacy in the Cold War. Because the Cold War didn't provide real wars, this is in a sense a sort of surrogate war, and almost seemingly chosen with the same sort of cavalier attitude that, say, a Civil War general might choose a battlefield: "Well, we're here, let's fight right here."

Kennedy referred to taking "an affirmative position in outer space." What does that mean? Did he think the opportunity would pass?

I think we need to go back to Kennedy's own reaction to Sputnik in 1957. The Democrats at that time were virtually dead in the water because they were split over the segregation issue, and there was almost no hope that they were going to win the 1960 election. And then along came Sputnik, and Eisenhower was very reluctant to react to it in a dynamic way, because he didn't seem to think it was all that important. So Kennedy and Johnson—actually, Johnson was the first on the mark—turned it into a national security issue. Johnson said, "If we don't get up there soon, the Russians will be dropping missiles on us like kids dropping rocks from freeway overpasses." And I think that is the kind of thing that Kennedy was talking about.

Now, the word affirmative is also an interesting one, because it's very Kennedyesque. Kennedy did have a way of turning cold, hard national security issues into great noble crusades. And so there were various levels with Kennedy; to one group he would be promising a strong military endeavor, and to others he would be promising some kind of great noble crusade that would be good for the American soul.

As the project took shape during the '60s, were there dissenting voices in America, people who thought we shouldn't do it?

Yes, indeed, and for me that was the thing that was most revealing, because when I looked back at my own memories—I was born in 1955—I thought that the space program was massively popular. But deep within the NASA publicity office files I found a virtually full set of Gallup and Harris polls for the 1960s which absolutely shocked me. It showed how seriously NASA took its public image, because on only one occasion during the 1960s—and this was after the Apollo 8 Christmas mission to the moon—did a majority of the American people express an opinion that the venture was worth the money invested in it. Now, that's quite significant. If you asked the American people if they liked the space program, they would overwhelmingly say yes. If you asked them, is it worth $35 billion to go to the moon, on virtually every occasion a majority said no.

So that's one of the sources of opposition. But what I think is really the fascinating source of opposition, and the most eloquent and articulate and sustained opposition, was expressed by scientists, because they really didn't think that this was a scientific endeavor. And these were very often Nobel Prize winners and people like James van Allen, who were saying that money was being wasted which could be expended on much more legitimate and productive scientific purposes.

What did the Soviets make of all this?

I think the Soviets were basically in the same boat, and it was an endeavor that they had themselves created. In the early years of the space race, every milestone is achieved first by the Soviets. They have the first satellite in space; the first creature, a dog, in space; they have the first man in space; the first woman in space; the first double team of astronauts in space. The reason they're able to achieve this is because they have a very powerful rocket, and that is ironically because they hadn't quite yet learned how to build small nuclear weapons, so they had a powerful rocket that could be used, instead of shooting missiles over toward the United States, to shoot [missions] straight up into space. But I think there must have been deep within the Kremlin a certain bemusement that the Russians were so easily able to manipulate American sensibilities at this time, and that the Americans so willingly followed them down this road. If we look back on Eisenhower, this is what bothered him so much. He said, "I really can't understand why everyone wants to join this race and imitate the Russians. Why can't we simply say we are a great country, and that we don't need pointless exploits in space to prove that we're great?"

Of course, the project's goal was achieved with Apollo 11. What do you see as the practical outcome of the whole Apollo project? Did it live up to its promise?

I'm not sure. It lived up to its promise in the sense that it got the Americans to the moon, and that's what they were promised. In a very basic sense, the American people were not really expecting much more, which is evidenced by the fact that after Apollo 11 they very quickly lost interest in it. And so in the sense of being an exciting adventure, yes, it lived up to that promise. In the sense of being something more than that, something scientifically important or something which brought benefit back on Earth ... Neil Armstrong said it was a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind. It's difficult to see the giant leap, and even Armstrong said that a year afterwards, when he was asked in what ways was it a giant leap, and he said, "I really don't know."

What do you make of America's space program in the years since then?

This is part of the problem. One of the very interesting things that happens is that virtually right after Apollo 11, NASA goes to Congress and President Nixon asking for money to go to Mars, and Nixon's budget office comes out with a very fascinating report which basically says that NASA is an institution which is geared toward the spending of money, and that is its sole purpose. Basically it produces technology in such a way that the logical outcome is to produce more technology in order to make the previous technology worthwhile, the conclusion of which is that it's a never-ending cycle for spending money. And so in that sense I think that's what went wrong with all this. There was never really a long-term goal in terms of why Americans were actually in space. And therefore they've never really since figured out what they're actually doing up there, and in fact partly the problem relates to the idea of man in space. Does man actually have a point in space? Because in many ways the injection of man into the equation limits what you can do. You can't go to Venus, and it's of some doubt whether you can go to Mars. Every mission has to be a round trip, because you have to bring that man back. With robotics and the kinds of things that are developing nowadays, it would make much more sense to remove man from the equation, but there is in effect almost this need for the Buck Rogers type of hero.

In the end, how do you think history should remember the Apollo project? Was it uniquely a product of the Cold War, or does it have broader lessons?

That's an excellent question, and it's also one of the most difficult questions to answer, in a way, for me, because it's a very painful one. In one sense you look at the astronauts and you see undeniably heroic people who were absolutely dedicated to a real purpose, and I would never want my book to be seen as something which attacked them. Nor would I want it to be seen as attacking the ordinary scientists and technicians who worked on the Apollo project, who really did create something wonderfully imaginative. I still get shivers down my back when I watch, for instance, Apollo 13, which is a fascinating story of human initiative in a crisis. At the same time, however, it is quite unfortunate that that wonderful energy, dynamism, imagination and intelligence couldn't have been devoted to something a bit more productive and fruitful of which we could really say, back on Earth, "It changed our lives." And it's partly this idea that we have of frontiers in America, and this particular conception in the 1960s that the frontier had to be in outer space. The frontier couldn't simply be, say, a problem like poverty or starvation or today global warming—that doesn't fire people in the same way, and yet in terms of what it could do for all of us, I think the benefits would be clearer.

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