Apollo 11 Made Us Believe We Could Do Anything

Earthrise seen from the moon by Apollo 8. NASA

By Eric Olson, University of Sheffield

The Apollo project gave us the astonishing spectacle of a blue marble rising over the sterile surface of the moon. Of course, the moon was already known to be uninhabitable. But being shown something in high-resolution colour photography makes a stronger impression than being told it by the experts. Our planet appeared in the photos as a small, vulnerable object amid surroundings utterly inimical to life. They showed, in a way that no scientific report could, the importance of keeping the Earth habitable, boosting the environmental movement.

But the moon landings affected many people in precisely the opposite way. No other public project has been such a spectacular success. The aim was so simple and concrete that everyone could immediately grasp it. Kennedy’s commitment to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” was made before the US had even put a man into orbit. Yet it was achieved just eight years later – barely half the time it takes nowadays to build a new railway across London. “Top that,” the Americans can easily say. Fifty years on, no one has.

The trouble with spectacular successes is that they breed complacency. The moon landings reinforced the belief that technology will always be able to solve our problems. Everyone knows the saying, “If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can…” All we need is the will to do it. And a lot of money, of course. But not as much as you might think: the entire Apollo programme, over 12 years, cost about £120 billion in today’s money. That’s how much the US spends on its military in 11 weeks (and Britain in three years). If technology can do that, what can it not do?

This faith in technology has given us a false sense of security. Every day we hear urgent warnings about antibiotic resistance, soil depletion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and of course climate change. These imminent catastrophes are the result of our own behaviour. The obvious solution is to change that behaviour: to stop abusing antibiotics, destroying tropical forests, burning fossil fuels, and so on. Yet we don’t.

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Eric Olson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their ...

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