There’s Not Much For the United States Up in Space
The moonshot was always a myth.
In public, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy spoke inspiring words about the space program. “We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy said in a speech at Rice University in September 1962, not because reaching that goal would be easy but because it would be hard: “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Kennedy’s rhetoric birthed the moonshot myth: that a dynamic, doomed young leader rallied a country to great heights through research and engineering. It was only ever partially true, if that, but the image endures, from television shows like Disney+’s The Right Stuff and Apple TV’s alternate history series For All Mankind to how corporations and governments refer to their ambitious goals as “moonshots.” Google’s parent, Alphabet, brags of its “moonshot” factory. As vice president, Joe Biden promoted the “Cancer Moonshot”—a “new national effort to end cancer as we know it.”
Since Kennedy’s time, presidents and others have tried to recapture moonshot magic. Mostly, they’ve failed. Both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush called for a return to the moon and a Mars landing. (The original George H.W. Bush Mars landing goal was for boots on the Red Planet by 2019.) Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump put forward their own lofty targets, including the Artemis program to land the next man—and the first woman—on the moon by 2024, a goal that officially remains in place. Today, activists and politicians overtly hope that increased great-power competition with China will spur U.S. interest and investment in space exploration, just as rivalry with the Soviet Union did in the 1960s.
Yet 1960s-styled space races aren’t inevitable, or even necessary, to promote an interest in space. Space is no longer novel or exciting, but it plays an essential and routine, almost invisible, part of our lives. That doesn’t mean that making space into an arena for great-power competition is irrelevant. Far from it: Extending competitive relationships to space could jeopardize the cooperative foundations of international arrangements that make space useful.
Mythmaking smooths away the rough edges of history, erasing the parts that don’t fit. Just before Kennedy’s frequently quoted “we choose to go to the moon” passage, he asked the question many Americans wondered about: “But why, some say, the moon?” His answer combined good rhetoric and bad logic: “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”
That last college football joke shows that sometimes Kennedy himself never viewed the whole project as heroically as the moonshot myth portrays. A taped conversation of Kennedy’s deliberations over space exploration with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator James Webb and other aides in 1962 confirms his more nuanced—even cynical—beliefs. Kennedy rejected Webb’s argument that the basis for the Apollo program was scientific. “I’m not that interested in space,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s good. I think we ought to know about it. We’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money.” If science or the progress of humanity mattered most, the president noted in the same conversation, then it would be more important to spend the herculean sums on desalination or curing cancer.
For Kennedy, Apollo’s importance was in demonstrating that the United States retained its scientific preeminence in the Cold War—a more convincing reason for spending more than $280 billion (in today’s dollars) on the moon landing program than invoking Charles Lindbergh’s flight or climbing Mount Everest. When it came to space, “the only justification for it,” he said, “is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God we passed them. I think it would be a hell of a thing for us.”
Kennedy reflected the pressure on U.S. policymakers to demonstrate that the “free world” could match the scientific prowess of the communist bloc, then going from strength to strength in space. As Georgetown University professor Daniel Nexon and I have argued, Kennedy’s decision had more in common with other attempts by dominant powers to maintain their international status than with a starry-eyed belief in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Yet analysts should not assume that space must be the crux of Sino-American rivalry. Competing for status is perennial, but the forms of those competitions vary tremendously. What was once a relevant domain for competition in one historical moment may prove less important in another.
International rivalry even became less central to Apollo over time. Even as the Vietnam War heated up, U.S.-Soviet relations began to relax, and the accumulating record of U.S. space programs began to outpace the Soviets, lessening the pressure to make space a competitive arena. Before his assassination, Kennedy even seriously considered making the moon effort a joint venture with the Soviets.
By 1969, as historian Teasel Muir-Harmony shows in her new book Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo, U.S. government propagandists sought to promote Apollo as fulfilling the common aspirations of “all mankind,” downplaying original competitive and nationalistic instincts—and shifting attention from the bloody, globally unpopular U.S. war in Vietnam.
That attempt succeeded—for a little while. A record audience of more than 600 million people watched the moon landing, possible thanks to satellites and U.S. government investments in a global communications network.
Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon basked in the good publicity and sent the Apollo 11 astronauts on a global goodwill tour to capitalize on their success. Almost simultaneously, television audiences lost interest in lunar exploration, with the New York Times noting that pictures of “baren moonscapes and floating astronauts become ordinary and even tedious rather quickly.”
Nixon’s administration slashed NASA’s budget, canceling planned Apollo missions and pivoting toward the development of what was supposed to be a safer and more reliable technology: the space shuttle. Humanity would stick to practical, unglamorous missions in low-earth orbit, while machines would explore the moon, Mars, the solar system, and (with the Voyager and Pioneer probes) the universe beyond.
Today, space exploration advocates draw on a mix of the decision to proceed with Apollo’s nationalist ambitions and the pan-humanity rhetoric of the later stages of the project. They argue that a revitalized interest in space exploration can help solve pressing economic and political problems, from mining rare-earth minerals for a green economy to even mending U.S. democracy by giving the country a common purpose. This is moonshot thinking on steroids.
There’s no real logic to the claim that space racing can overcome other divisions in society. The 1960s themselves featured the expression of tremendous rifts in U.S. society. People may have watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon, but that didn’t mean they agreed any more on civil rights, the women’s movement, or the war in Vietnam. Perhaps that’s because the Apollo program itself never enjoyed overwhelming public support, with the majority of U.S. citizens frequently telling pollsters it wasn’t worth the costs.
Today’s great-power competition is unlikely to be as fierce as during the height of the Cold War. And even though Americans broadly support NASA today, they specifically do not favor human space exploration more than NASA projects to address climate change, asteroid defense, and scientific research. Further, as international relations scholar David Burbach found, Republicans and Democrats may both support funding for NASA, but they do so for different reasons, with Republicans favoring military rationales for increasing space funding and Democrats preferring environmental spending rationales. That may mean there’s no single approach to space that could overcome the country’s partisan divide.
Or consider the case for asteroid mining. True, as advocates of outer space mining (and investors in firms that stand to profit) argue, asteroids contain valuable minerals—rare earths, platinum, gold, iridium, and so on. But turning space rocks into usable ores is incredibly expensive, and unlike terrestrial mining, there’s no infrastructure to support it. So why go through the hassle of mining asteroids when terrestrial alternatives like recycling, deep seabed mining, and even relaxing regulations hindering exploitation of California’s rare-earths deposits exist? As a result, prominent firms that touted the long-term profitability of these ventures have faced problems raising funds or have exited the sector.
Investors’ skepticism of asteroid mining demonstrates the gap between romantic moonshot thinking and the kind of calculations that actually makes space relevant. Whereas 1960s space exploration was dominated by U.S. and Soviet government activity that bureaucrats struggled to justify in cost-benefit terms, today most space economic activity by value takes place in the commercial sector (mostly satellite communications).
Market-driven space activity is less dramatic than beating the Communists to the moon, but the low-key, mostly robotic sector has done much more to change Earth-bound society than Apollo. The key ingredient to making space useful isn’t “the right stuff” but more the right information technology, like how satellites have revolutionized navigation, weather and climate monitoring, and even archaeology. To put it another way, the 1960s space technology that showed the future of humanity’s activity beyond Earth wasn’t Apollo but the privately financed Telstar communications satellite.
These calculations have made space a growing, if relatively modest, part of the terrestrial economy. As a U.S. Commerce Department official observed in 2018, space activities contribute about $400 billion to the global economy. That’s a big number, but it’s not immense—transportation and warehousing contribute nearly $700 billion to the U.S. economy alone. The space economy is already here, but instead of the rocket-fueled future that midcentury science fiction dreamed of, it’s as important and unglamorous as Amazon’s fulfillment network.
The political and legal environment of space has changed too. When Kennedy charged NASA with “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” space exploration wasn’t just the final frontier—it was a legal frontier with few international laws or precedents to bind the Soviets and Americans.
That’s no longer the case. As international relations scholar M.J. Peterson recorded, over the course of the past several decades, lawyers and governments crafted landmark legal agreements to regulate space activity, including the Outer Space Treaty and conventions regarding the registration of space objects, liability for damage caused by space objects, and humanitarian assistance for astronauts.
As the number of governments and private actors invested in space grows, space will need more, rather than less, regulation. Those developments means that the United States may find itself facing many more legal hurdles than it ever did during the moonshot era.
As the world’s leading power, the United States has always been conflicted between its desires to shape international law by participating in it and the temptation to just reject it. Moonshot thinking risks shifting the balance toward the latter. Recent attempts to impose U.S. preferences in space unilaterally or through coalitions of the willing, as with the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act and the Artemis Accords, could portend a future administration from unraveling multilateral cooperation. That, in turn, could lead other space powers—including China and Russia—to try to limit or even sabotage U.S.-led regimes.
These are not just abstract questions of preserving cooperation for cooperation’s sake. Whether asteroids—or the moon or Mars—can be mined turn to legal questions like these. More immediately, activity in space, unlike that on Earth or in the oceans, takes place in an unforgiving environment where little customary law can be easily extended to resolve problems. The actions of one country can have major repercussions, as with China’s test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, a single event that, according to the European Space Agency, “increased the trackable space object population by 25%.” At the extreme, such events might close off access to space, although it’s likelier that leaving this problem unchecked will simply make activities in space much more risky and costly.
As economists Peter Phillips and Gabriela Pohl argued, solving the problem of “space junk” that could destroy spacecraft and satellites requires international cooperation. International confidence is key, they note, because “space junk itself may be weaponised and so too might the technologies currently being developed to clean up the pollution.” Shifting policymakers’ frames of reference from cooperative to competitive mindsets could undermine solutions to these and other problems like traffic management that, despite not being part of moonshot-fueled dreams, feature prominently for real space activity.
Space advocates should temper their attempts to exploit Sino-American rivalries. Extending great-power competition to space risks undermining the cooperation necessary to preserving space as a domain of human activity. The United States has already taken a big step backward with a domestic law that, practically, bans NASA from working with Chinese space agencies or commercial firms.
A more realistic vision would focus on confidence-building measures that promote multilateral solutions to common problems like space debris that threaten the most valuable parts of space: commercial activity, scientific research, and earth observation. A space policy, in other words, that’s down-to-earth.