Why you should care
For some, Apollo 11 is all about proving American superiority. But that’s not the real lesson here.
When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, it was irrefutable proof to the public that America, not the Soviet Union, was the world leader when it came to science, technology and general intrepidness. Now, President Donald Trump has made a new space race with China and Russia a key front in his fight to make America great again. In his recent Fourth of July speech, President Trump praised Apollo 11 as an example of what makes America exceptional — “For Americans,” he said, “nothing is impossible” — and singled out Gene Kranz, flight director for Apollo 11, who attended Trump’s Salute to America celebration.
“Gene, I want you to know that we’re going to be back on the moon very soon,” Trump said. “And, someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.” He cited the moon landing as one proof, among others, of America’s ingenuity and spirit being exceptional among the nations of the world.
The only problem? The arguably arbitrary finish line of landing a man on the moon would not have been possible without some decidedly un-American help. This included the recruitment of more than 1,600 German scientists following World War II — including some high-ranking Nazis — in Operation Paperclip.
The long-term benefits of the space race are not that there was a winner, and that winner cemented their status as the greatest country in the world.
“The former Nazi rocket scientists were seen as geniuses, which is why they were given all the top jobs in the post-war U.S. Army rocket programs and later on, during Apollo,” explains Annie Jacobsen, author of Operation Paperclip. Not to be outdone, the Soviet space program also rounded up hundreds of German scientists and put them to work in Russia, though largely in second-tier jobs.
As part of the top-secret campaign, the American government smuggled German engineers, technicians and scientists out of Europe after the fall of the Third Reich and to America, where they helped propel U.S. military and space-related advances. That included Wernher von Braun, a Nazi party member, and his team, who had developed the V-2 rocket known for terrorizing Allied cities toward the end of the war. Jacobsen cites a letter from von Braun written in 1944 where he spoke of personally procuring slave labor from Buchenwald concentration camp to manufacture V-2 rockets. Von Braun was also chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon.
Another Operation Paperclip alum was Hubertus Strughold, the father of space medicine. For 50 years, the Space Medicine Association’s most prestigious award was named after Strughold, until 2012, when the Wall Street Journal exposed his connections to Nazi human experiments during the war.
At almost every other step of the Cold War’s space race, the USSR was ahead of the U.S. The Soviet Union put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in October 1957, beating the U.S. Explorer 1 by four months. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat Alan Shepard as the first man in space by more than three weeks. America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride, followed Valentina Tereshkova’s flight two decades earlier.
Back in March, Vice President Mike Pence announced in a speech to the National Space Council that the administration was going to be accelerating its plan to put Americans back on the moon, declaring that they’d be up there by 2024, four years earlier than previously planned. Vice President Pence also claimed that Russia and China were challenging America to “become the world’s preeminent space-faring nation.” Pence added, “Make no mistake about it, we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.”
But the two other contestants in this supposed 21st-century space race don’t seem all that interested in the competition. Russia has no plans for sending humans to the moon, and the Chinese only have tentative plans for human-crewed flights to the moon after 2030. China is more focused on its Tiangong-3 space station and cheaper robotic missions, while Russia’s own financial audit agency declared Roscosmos as the public enterprise with the “highest losses” due to irrational spending and massive corruption in 2018.
The long-term benefits of the space race are not that there was a winner, and that winner cemented their status as the greatest country in the world. Rather, the missions resulted in increased international cooperation and funding increases for scientific research and education. The technological and scientific progress that resulted from the Apollo missions has long outlasted the American flag planted on the moon — that blew away in a rush of rocket exhaust when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong left. But inventions pioneered by NASA during this time include memory foam and water purification methods.
When Americans talk about how the country won the space race, that means it ended in 1969 — when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men on the moon. Perhaps a better ending came in 1975 when Soviet and American crews docked their Apollo and Soyuz crafts in orbit and exchanged gifts in a spirit of international cooperation. Roscosmos’ Soyuz rockets still carry Americans to the International Space Station, which Russia — working together with the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan — helped build.