An analysis of the effects of the Apollo 11 Moon landing on 20th century society

By Dylan

May 26, 2009



In this scholarly article, I will analyze the effects the Apollo 11 Moon Landing had on twentieth century society. I will argue that the Apollo project was a waste of resources, though an important achievement helping to stabilize the United State’s lead in global innovation and in the Cold War against the Soviets. I will show this by first evaluating NASA’s wastefulness at the time of the moon landing, given other important national needs at the time and compare it with the positive global impact of the many scientific discoveries and developments that resulted from the landing. Then, I will describe some moments of international enthusiasm surrounding the Moon landing to show the State’s global leadership at the time to show the positive impact on society. Finally, I will approach the question of the what Apollo meant in the context of the Cold War and the Space Race with the Soviets to further investigate the impact of Apollo 11 on the 20th century. I will conclude by relating these points back to my thesis to show the wasteful, yet significant impact of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on 20th century society.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered to the Congress the following in his ‘Special Message on Urgent National Needs’, in which he requested their support and financial backing: “First I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” . The urgency of this message came with the fear of the imminent possibility that the Russians could be the first to accomplish this incredible feat. After all, they had been the first to launch satellites into space with Sputnik in 1957, and got another edge in the competition with Yuri Gagarin’s manned spaceflight in 1961. However, following each of these accomplishments, with rapid efficiency, the United States caught up to the same level as the Soviets, first with Explorer and again with Alan Shepherd in the Freedom capsule of the Mercury Program. Then, ending the Russian’s previous, consistent lead in the space race, on July 20, 1969, six hours after landing in the Columbia Command Module, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin exited the Eagle Lunar Module and took the first steps on the Moon. Even though their costly, yet critical 21 hours spent harvesting, exploring, and documenting the surface of the Moon did not yield an expected wealth of resources or potential for government use, they did influence America and the rest of the world for far longer. The United State’s Apollo 11 Moon Landing, while a waste of crucial resources, was a pivotal moment of achievement in the 20th century helping to establish the United States as the global leader of innovation and to give them an edge in the Cold War.

Despite the greatness of the achievement of NASA’s Apollo 11, the space program of the 1960s did waste valuable, scarce resources. John F. Kennedy, in the same ‘Special Message on Urgent National Needs’ speech praised for its innovative proposition, requested from congress an initial 531 million dollars to support the Apollo 11 project, with an estimated 9 billion more as it developed. Between 1961 and 1972, roughly the duration of the prime moments of the space race, the United States spent beyond those estimated 9 billion, and instead a total of around 23 billion dollars on the Space Program. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed”. At a time of war, when many wallets were stretched tight, the Moon landing was especially wasteful. President Johnson, in a special address to the Congress on January 10, 1967, seeking to levy additional income taxes on 4 out of 5 civilians, “placed special stress on the problem of rapid population increases while world food supplies continued to shrink”. Max Frankel wrote in the New York Times on the same evening following his address, that “the President placed special stress on the problem of rapid population increases while food supplies continue to shrink. The race between food and population ‘is now being lost’ [President Johnson] said”. In this same speech, the President allocated 135 million dollars for both an expansion of the Head Start program, helping to aid disadvantaged youth in school to keep up with those who aren’t disadvantaged, and a job-training program to find work for those most disadvantaged youth. He also requested 700 million dollars for debt service, to help tackle the outstanding several hundred-billion dollars of national debt. This national debt had been substantially amassing since first the Civil War, the Second World War and again during the Vietnam war. At the end of the 1970 fiscal year, the US debt was 389.2 billion dollars, having risen from 290.2 billion dollars at the end of 1960. Despite all of the far more important and more deserving possible recipients of federal money at the time, the Moon landing absorbed a sizable 23 billion dollars.

The Moon landing’s waste was justified both by the immense accomplishment of the landing itself and the many scientific developments it yielded. Throughout the Apollo projects, each landing on the Moon brought us immeasurably valuable insight into a whole new world. Among hundreds of lunar samples, all of which helped to shape our understanding of the Moon was the Genesis rock, which was discovered during Apollo 15. Akin to the depth of knowledge opened up by the Rosetta Stone, the anorthosite Genesis has proven essential to understanding not only the geologic history of the Moon but also the creation of our universe. Similarly benefiting our own planet, an astronaut from Apollo 17, Harrison Schmitt has discovered that Helium 3, “an isotope extremely rare on Earth, exists in quantity in the lunar soil, implanted by the solar wind”. According to Schmitt’s studies with the Fusion Technology Institute of the University of Wisconsin, this isotope could be monumentally helpful in producing thermonuclear energy, as it “does not make the reactor radioactive”, meaning it would be far more friendly to our environment and to our Earth than similar, currently used energy sources. Alternative energy such as this is quite worth the price of admission to the Moon. Further research on the Moon, also made possible only by the initial Apollo 11 landing could open up even more information, not only about the Moon and our universe, but possibly Earth and the environment we live in.

The Moon landing established the United Sates as an international heroic figure, as it was thought that it was not just the United States and its astronauts landing on the Moon and exploring new horizons, but mankind advancing to a new level of potential at which any impossible task can be conquered. While taking his first steps on the Moon, ages before the realization of their unfortunately essential waste, Neil Armstrong spoke a few of the most famous words in history, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. Since the momentous statement of those historic words, and even before, the Apollo 11 Landing has been appropriately viewed as more than a fantastic technological achievement, but also a giant step for mankind. The United States were supported from even before the launch of their rocket; a poll taken by Louis Harris published in the New York post shortly before the Moon landing in July 1969 showed that public support for putting a man on the Moon and the Apollo project had risen to 51%, over about 41% against and the rest undecided. Clive Ponting remarks in The 20th Century: A World History, of the Apollo 11 landing, that it had “many peoples across the globe united in support and excitement”. A British article written for the New York Times similarly documents anecdotes about excited Europeans packing American Embassies to view space films, countless Sunday papers filled with colored diagrams of space technology and countries being described as generally “lunar-crazy”. Ponting writes again of the Moon landing that “everywhere in the world people benefited, to some extent, from technological progress”. “Putting a man on the moon not only inspired the nation, but also the world”, according to Steven J. Dick, NASAʼs chief historian at the headquarters in Washington D.C., “the 1960s were a tumultuous time in the U.S., and the moon landing showed what could be accomplished at a time when much else was going wrong”. The international enthusiasm documented above demonstrates how the Moon landing was truly responsible for establishing the United States’ role as the definitive leader in technological innovation and global progress.

In order to understand the impact of the Moon landing on 20th century society, it is important to note in addition to the positive feedback from much of the United States and Western Europe, its significance in the Cold War. The Apollo 11 Moon Landing was a paradigm of Cold War Competition, the Soviets’ previous successes first threatening the United States, this threat motivating them to technological achievement and victory. The Success of the Apollo 11 project helped to give the States an edge against the Soviets in their race to space within the Cold War. Rita G. Koman writes in her article, Man on the Moon: The U.S. Space Program as a Cold War Maneuver how Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy’s presidential transition task force leader warned the president about the dangerous implications on the United States if the Soviets were victorious on the moon before us. She writes, “Intrinsic to the warning was the fear that other nations would assume that such a lead in space implied a lead in the building of missile weapons at all”, or that, the Soviets winning the Moon would mean the Soviets winning the Cold War. However, we went to the Moon first and in turn acquired the needed edge to draw us in front of the Soviets.

The Apollo 11 Moon landing was far more than an important event to be written about in history books. It was instead a dream of one nation being realized and the resulting implications affecting many societies for years to come, inspiring nations, making the impossible come true for several generations and destroying a source of tension and fear between two powerful nations. The Moon Landing was an excessively wasteful, yet remarkably necessary application of government and civilian resources and money as it helped us to realized new capacity for innovation, and to triumph over the Soviets and effectively eliminate a potentially dangerous threat to our nation’s inhabitants. The Moon today remains an exciting new territory, still fresh with the same sense of possibility that encourages its initial exploration, and inevitably more.



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