This article was originally published on Pessimists Archive.
Today marks the 54th anniversary of the moon landing. In retrospect it has almost unanimous support and adoration in the US. However, before that giant leap for mankind actually took place – less than one third of Americans were in favor of a moon landing: in 1961 a Gallup poll showed only 33% of Americans in favor.
This isn’t something you often hear about regarding the history of the moon mission. It is conveniently ignored in the popular mind, in lieu of a story of collective triumph against the USSR, a narrative that pleases the left as an example of the power of public funding and the right, as a triumph of the capitalist west against the communist east. The retroactive support now is as bi-partisan as the opposition was then.
Noted fiscal hawk Barry Goldwater dismissed the lofty ambitions of lunar exploration as a “wasteful endeavor,” an ironic stance given he voiced his criticism at a glitzy dinner that cost each attendee a cool $100 – close to $1000 in 2023. In the very same year, he decried the United States as “moon struck.” President Kennedy’s early suggestion of teaming up with Russia to reach the moon drew opposition from Republicans too.
Ex-president Dwight D. Eisenhower – the very man responsible for birthing and funding NASA – expressed his own reservations, dismissing Kennedy’s lunar ambition as “almost hysterical” saying “Anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts…” Other Republicans labelled it a Moondoggle – a term coined in 1961 by AI pioneer (and original AI doomer) Norbert Wiener – who held noted left wing views. More left wing opposition revolved around the desire for more spending on the needs of citizens.
Aggregations of opinion polls in the 1960s and 70s have shown approval of the moon landing was consistently lower than disapproval. Even astronomers polled, were majority against the mission. Only in the weeks before the moon mission was approval recorded at 51% in one Harris poll.
In the aftermath of the moon landing, approval for that specific mission didn’t meaningfully budge. 47% said it was worth it a decade later, in 1979 and it would take 20 years for amnesia to set it and this number to reach 77% in 1989. Meanwhile opposition to further moon missions remained higher than support for one until at least the mid-1990s. The US hasn’t been back to the moon since 1972.
Lack of ambition by NASA was one of the reasons that prompted some of America’s wealthiest to move space exploration beyond the realms of nation states, with numerous private individuals exploring the star with some – like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk securing NASA contracts for among other things, a new moon landing.
This time around, fiscal conservatives are less opposed, since private efficiencies like re-usable rockets have lowered the tax burden of space exploration. Left wing critics like Bernie Sanders complain – argue in outlets like The Guardian – that those private dollars invested in space ought to have been taxed away to fund public programs like Apollo – ignoring the fact those kind of programs have always been politically unpopular. Sanders would have likely made the same arguments about Apollo had he been a Senator in the 1960s.
Ironically in July 1969, that same out let in which Sanders wrote – The Guardian – called a teachers’ union officer a “cynic” for calling America’s moonshot “A trivial prestige exercise” that “ignored the social conditions existing in the world”, reporting that when man first set foot on the moon, he had not even been watching it on TV.