Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 17 July 2019

50 years since Apollo 11 - 'One giant leap': how political conflict launched the moon landing

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first moon landing, photo by Nasa

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the first moon landing, photo by Nasa   (Click to enlarge)

Ian Pattison, Socialist Party national committee

On 20 July 1969, for the first time in history, humans walked on the moon. Since 1972, we haven't been back.

In 1961, US president John F Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon "before this decade is out." Following those words, the government ploughed a huge amount of resources into space agency Nasa. Its annual budget rose 60-fold in just a few years to almost $50 billion in today's money.

The moon landing captivated a generation then and still does now. 600 million people watched it happen on TV. But what drove people to land on the moon? Was it scientific exploration, or to test the limits of human endeavour?

The answer is no, even according to Nasa. Geophysicist Paul Lowman, writing for the Nasa website in 2007, accurately said: "The primary motivation for sending a man to the moon was political, not scientific."

Kennedy told Nasa administrator James Webb that the moon landing should be the organisation's top priority "for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race. We hope to beat them."

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first person in space

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first person in space   (Click to enlarge)

Ideological battle

The US was locked in an ideological battle. The space race was part of the Cold War - the proxy conflict fought over five decades between the world's two superpowers at the time, the capitalist United States and Stalinist Soviet Union.

'Winning' the space race would be a propaganda coup in that struggle between two irreconcilable social systems. The Soviet Union achieved a string of firsts: first satellite, live creatures to orbit Earth, moon landing, man and woman in space, spacewalk.

The huge expense put paid to both space programmes in the end. But before that, all the US had left to 'prove' capitalism's superiority was getting the first person to walk on the moon.

Kennedy told Webb this was the only reason why Nasa came to possess "fantastic" sums of money. "Otherwise," Kennedy admitted, "we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space."

The 1917 workers' revolution in Russia had established a publicly owned, planned economy - an existential threat to big business and the super-rich around the world. The planned economy propelled Russia from a backward, semi-feudal country to a global superpower.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian revolution, said "a planned economy needs democracy as the human body needs oxygen." But democratic workers' control and management of that planned economy was extinguished, due to the isolation of the revolution and the crystallisation of a bureaucracy within the Communist Party and Soviet state.

Apollo 11 taking off, photo by Nasa

Apollo 11 taking off, photo by Nasa   (Click to enlarge)

However, the capitalist US was no beacon of progress. The 2016 film Hidden Figures exposed the racism and sexism Nasa employees really faced.

And the commander of the earlier Apollo 8 mission, Frank Borman, said that as he sat in the spaceship waiting to take off, he thought: "Every one of the one million parts behind and beneath me was built by the guy who put in the lowest tender."

US government writer Robert Longley says "survivability... was rarely the main go/no-go factor for Kennedy." The US fatalities in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the death of all Apollo 1 crew during a training exercise, and other incidents, further illustrate that capitalism's political and economic concerns trump human ones.

Writing in the Socialist ten years ago on the 40th anniversary, Tom Baldwin commented that the moon landings "illustrate the extreme limitations of a capitalist society... The phrase 'they can put a man on the moon but they can't - get the trains on time; keep me in a job; provide the world with clean water; etc' is common."

In fact, hundreds of civil rights activists did protest around the Apollo 11 mission launch. They demanded that Nasa support their movement, use its expertise "to tackle the problem of hunger," and that ten protesting families be allowed to view the launch.

US president Richard Nixon cancelled future planned moon landings. They weren't tenable as the world sank deeper into economic crisis, with an explosion of social movements, industrial strikes and revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s.

We can't escape the class struggle in space either. On 28 December 1973, US astronauts on the Skylab mission reportedly went on strike over high workload and lack of rest time. Although the exact nature of their action is disputed, the crew did successfully negotiate more time for leisure, and changed for the better how astronauts are treated in space.

Global powers are once more engaged in a space race, including renewed talk of moonwalks, photo by Gregory H Revera/CC

Global powers are once more engaged in a space race, including renewed talk of moonwalks, photo by Gregory H Revera/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Renewed race

A renewed space race is now opening up. George Bush Jr promised another US moonwalk by 2020; Donald Trump has promised one by 2024. This is unlikely given Nasa's different focus and lower levels of funding today. Maybe the Chinese regime will manage one by 2025, maybe not.

James Ivens, writing in Socialism Today magazine this month, explains that "the propaganda value of planting a flag on the moon is not a goal in itself anymore, although that is part of the motivation for the emerging powers that have yet to do it.

"More than that, they see the moon as a staging post for exploiting and industrialising near space." Bosses are "seeing the profit potential in satellites, near-Earth tourism, and mineral extraction."

Nasa estimates that 400,000 engineers were needed, over several decades, to successfully land the first person on the moon. A socialist world, based on public ownership and democratic planning by the working class, would free spaceflight from the interference of profit and prestige. That would allow us to pool the resources of humankind, to learn and explore for the benefit of all.

Further reading

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 17 July 2019:

What we think

Stop Boris - general election now


Fraudsters thrive and claimants suffer in despicable Universal Credit scam

Wales: chronic NHS underfunding exposed

Them & Us

Imperial typewriters dispute

The 45th anniversary of the strike

Workplace news

NSSN conference 2019: at the heart of trade union struggle

Health visitors strike for the first time ever

Bradford NHS workers strike against privatisation

Victory for Stagecoach bus strikers!

Newham housing repairs workers announce strike dates

Council seeks to take budget deficit out on school staff and pupils

Moon landing 50 years on

50 years since Apollo 11 - 'One giant leap': how political conflict launched the moon landing

Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Socialist change to end climate change

Residents mobilise to stop eviction

Stop the fire service cuts

Durham Miners' Gala

Campaigners force U-turn over NHS privatisation

Leicestershire - No more austerity!

Excellent response to building fund appeal

Socialist Party Fighting Fund

International socialist news and analysis

Greece elections: Syriza ousted amid voter disillusionment

Sudan masses mobilise against state repression

Interview: protests over killing in Israel


The Socialist Inbox


Home   |   The Socialist 17 July 2019   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangle30 years since the huge anti-poll tax demo... And how mass non-payment of the tax was built

triangleLike what we say, help us keep saying it - fund the Socialist

triangleCoronavirus and domestic violence: a double threat to women's lives

triangleEast London Socialist Party: Can Bernie Sanders win the US presidency?

triangleSelling the Socialist

Planned economy:

triangleChina after the 1949 revolution: the benefits of the planned economy stifled by bureaucracy

triangleTV Review: Chernobyl - Workers' heroism vs sclerotic Stalinism

triangleWhat lies behind the US-China trade war?

triangleA socialist approach to Corbyn and a customs union


triangleWest London Socialist Party: Globalisation/deglobalisation and the world economy

triangleState intervention shows what is possible

triangleBirmingham South East Socialist Party: What would a socialist economy look like?


triangleCoronavirus plunges capitalism into global turmoil

triangleThe new crisis and its consequences

Historic events

Historic events


Poll tax

30 years since the huge anti-poll tax demo... And how mass non-payment of the tax was built



South Africa: 60 years marking the Sharpeville Massacre


Berlin Wall

30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall: How a mass revolutionary movement for genuine socialism was diverted



Obituary - Bob Lee: 1954 - 2019



How working-class tenants beat Gentrification


Wall Street Crash

The 1929 Wall Street Crash: When the capitalist system was on its knees



China after the 1949 revolution: the benefits of the planned economy stifled by bureaucracy



40 years on: Mandatory reselection more vital for Labour than ever


Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland, August '69: 'Battle of the Bogside' and British troops on the streets



The Peterloo Massacre 1819: When a fearful ruling class tried to crush working-class political aspirations



The 45th anniversary of the strike



50 years since Apollo 11 - 'One giant leap': how political conflict launched the moon landing



Stonewall riots' legacy shows need for socialist struggle to win LGBT+ liberation



35th anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave


Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square massacre - 30 years on

triangleMore Historic events articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 07748 534 891

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 077 0671 0041



Alphabetical listing

March 2020

February 2020

January 2020