Fifty years after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, it’s hard not to conclude that he got things backwards. The moon landing was a giant leap for a man—Armstrong’s life was forever changed—but, in hindsight, only a small step for mankind.
It’s not that putting people on the moon wasn’t a difficult collective achievement—it was. But getting to the moon has done little in the long run to change human society.
As Roger Launius, an eminent space historian, writes in his new book Apollo’s Legacy, “At a basic level, the president’s Apollo decision was to the United States what the pharaohs’ determination to build the pyramids was to Egypt.” Its most resonant impact is not a particular technology, but simply the metaphor: If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we do X?
The “X’s” that usually come up in these discussions, such as figuring out how to solve climate change or poverty, “all have some potential for the application of technical solutions,” Launius notes. “But they are largely political and social problems.” And Apollo did not solve any political or social problems. Other “X’s”—say, curing cancer—depend on developing whole new forms of scientific knowledge.
By contrast, the success of the Apollo program, which at its peak employed 400,000 people, rested on good engineering management of myriad interdependent technical innovations, not on scientific revolutions. The Manhattan Project—which employed 125,000 and cost about a quarter as much as Apollo in inflation-adjusted dollars—changed the world far more by introducing the atomic bomb. That was a giant leap, though maybe not in such a good direction.
What can be said for Apollo’s impact on humanity is that the management of complex technical systems it required is something we have indeed grown very, very good at. Modern airplanes and computers are incomprehensibly complex. And yet they work—not because of Apollo, but for the same reasons.
It is thanks to these sorts of systems that even though humanity hasn’t returned to the moon since 1972, there has been slow and steady progress in human spaceflight, remarkable robotic exploration of the solar system, and—perhaps most important—a profound reordering of life on Earth by satellites orbiting it.
To get a sense of how pervasive space activity has become, it helps to look at some statistics. Since 2000, the US, Russia, China, India, and Europe have launched large rockets successfully 1,125 times, and unsuccessfully only 39 times. That’s a failure rate of about 3.5%. Many, if not most, of these failures have come in the first few launches of a new model, which means that the failure rate for tried-and-tested rockets is even lower. By contrast, from Sputnik’s 1957 launch to July 1969, 20% of launches failed.
When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, 37 men and one woman, from the US and the USSR, had orbited the Earth. Today 495 men and 63 women have, from 40 or so countries. The space shuttle was inarguably a disaster: each flight was supposed to cost $10 million but ended up costing $1.6 billion. Fourteen people died when Columbia and Challenger were lost. And yet the shuttle carried far more people to space than any other vehicle. The International Space Station (ISS), too, is laughably over the originally promised budget, for negligible scientific return—but if human spaceflight eventually becomes common, the ISS data on how to keep people alive and healthy in space for long periods will begin to look valuable.
Prior to July 20, 1969, the United States had sent two space probes flying by Venus on brief visits, and one by Mars. The Soviet Union had successfully received data from three Venusian probes. Nobody had sent spacecraft through the asteroid belt into the outer solar system, and the data from Mars and Venus offered just fragmentary glimpses.
Today, every planet in the solar system has been visited by space probes: Mars and Venus many times; Jupiter by a pair of orbiters; Mercury and Saturn by an orbiter each; Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto on brief visits. There have also been an assortment of missions to comets and asteroids.
In 1969, a single space telescope had been successfully launched; today dozens of such instruments have surveyed the skies. Notably, the Kepler space telescope discovered 2,343 planets outside the solar system—over half of the 3,972 such exoplanets found to date. In 1969, nobody knew if there were any exoplanets; today we know they outnumber stars, and also roughly what proportion of them are likely to be at the right size and distance from a star to potentially harbor life.
On July 20, 1969, 116 satellites were orbiting the Earth, not counting the moon or Apollo 11. At the time of writing, over 2,100 are. But their importance has grown much more than their sheer numbers: no aspect of 21st-century life is imaginable without them.
Communications satellites already cover the entire globe. For those with even modest resources, being out of reach is now more a deliberate choice than a logistical necessity. Satellite communication remains relatively expensive, but if Elon Musk and other entrepreneurs have their way, this will soon change. GPS, on the other hand, is free, courtesy of the US Air Force, which consequently has played the unlikely role of driving taxi companies around the world out of business and acting as a matchmaker for the millions who use apps like Tinder, Grindr, and Bumble. Military actions—from drone strikes to aircraft-carrier battle groups wandering the oceans—are so fundamentally mediated by communications and reconnaissance satellites that it’s impossible to imagine the last few decades of world history without them.
Cubesats and other small satellites have begun to change the economics of low Earth orbit in important ways. Because they are capable and lightweight, and hence on the way to becoming ubiquitous, one could say that we’re in the process of raising the surface of the Earth by a few hundred or a few thousand kilometers. Just as air travel was once the stuff of fable and has become mundane, the same has become true for machines in Earth orbit.
But unlike satellites, people cannot be shrunk. So as long as launch costs remain high, human travel to space will remain rare. Those costs have been stuck for a while, in part because of the ways in which rocket technology, governments, and the military got tangled together. Musk and Jeff Bezos, with their billions, are in the midst of sawing through that Gordian knot. But it remains to be seen if their efforts will lead to a flash in the pan of space tourism for elites or a durable giant leap into space, the first steps toward colonies on Mars or in giant cylinders orbiting the sun.
The Apollo program failed to make such a leap. Its success was in taking the technology of the time as far as it could go, just as the pharaohs built the absolute biggest pyramids they could. It was a monument to ingenuity and to determination. But monuments are, by design and by definition, ends and not beginnings.