THE ANGRY ARAB: The Moon Landing & the Cold War


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Amid all the 50th anniversary commemorations of Apollo 11, As`ad AbuKhalil finds little mention of the pioneering contributions of the Soviet  space program. 

By As`ad AbuKhalil

Special to Consortium News

It was Noam Chomsky who once said that NASA was the biggest propaganda scam of the 20th century, or words to that effect. 

When I was 10, my American school in Beirut took us on a field trip (it was a few steps from our school really) to a building at the American University of Beirut where small rocks from the moon were displayed behind a glass cover (this was shortly after the 1969 landing on the moon).  The rocks were on their own international tour while the State Department arranged a separate global road show for the three returning astronauts. 

When Michael Collins (one of the three astronauts of Apollo 11) retired, he joined the propaganda arm of the State Department, while both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin joined the corporate world. (Armstrong first made full tenured professor at the University of Cincinnati but he was disillusioned when collective bargaining set in among the faculty).

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong in one of the few photos showing him during the moonwalk. (NASA)

The story of the moon landing entwines with the history of the Cold War. Amid all the self-congratulatory commemorations of Apollo 11 on its 50thanniversary this monthnot much is being said in the U.S. about the pioneering contributions of the Russian space program.  Few in the U.S. know the name of the first man to travel in space (a Soviet), the first person to walk in space (a Soviet), or the first female astronaut (a Soviet cosmonaut, the word “astronaut” was derived from the Russian term).  The entire U.S. space program was set up to compete with, and defeat, the Soviet program. 

The chronology of the moon landing project was solely launched in response to the Soviet space achievements.  American exploration of space was about domination of the Earth. President Lyndon Johnson (a big advocate of space exploration) said: “control of space means control of the world.”  And President John Kennedy’s famous speech at Rice University in 1962, mixed rhetoric of the moon program with the struggle against communism and even praise for Christianity.  People forget that President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to nuke China in 1953, and U.S. lawmakers would casually threaten to drop atomic bombs on the U.S.S.R. at the time.

Yuri Gagarin, First Man in Space

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in 1964. (SAS Scandinavian Airlines via Wikimedia Commons)

The first space flight by Yuri Gagarin in April of 1961 triggered the U.S. moon landing project.  Alan Shepard was sent into space (for a mere 15 minutes) less than a month after Gagarin’s trip.  Internal government memos show tremendous agitation and nervousness about Soviet scientific successes. And it was in May of 1961, that Kennedy gave his speech in Congress in which he declared the U.S. plan to send a man (not women) to the moon and returning him safely to Earth.   The moon landing project was enormous by any measure: it cost more than $20 billion (more than $200 billion in today’s value).  More than 400,000 Americans were involved in the project.

Eisenhower was faulted for not exhibiting enthusiasm for the space program.  It is possible that his attitude was influenced by his critique of the military-industrial complex. The moon project was a mega illustration of that complex: corporations in different fields around the U.S. were involved as were departments of physics, chemistry, engineering and medicine in the big research universities.  The entire military was utilized by the program, as were intelligence agencies. The CIA was instrumental in monitoring and stealing Soviet space secrets, including the theft of the design of their satellites.

The genius of the American plan was in organization and management. NASA was run like a military institution; factionalism and squabbles were not permitted.  The U.S. was able to quickly catch up and then surpass the U.S.S.R. in the space race due to many factors.

Factors Favoring the U.S. 

No. 1) The Soviet space program was more democratic than the American counterpart, and splits and feuds between various scientists were common there, as Assiri Siddiqi describes in his book “The Soviet Union and the Space Race.” NASA had a centralized leadership which issued commands that had to be obeyed. Obedience was made easier by the recruitment of astronauts from the military services (all three members of Apollo 11 served in the military and Armstrong and Aldrin fought in Korea).  The Soviet political leadership did not respond to the demands and needs of the brilliant Soviet scientists, especially its chief rocket scientist, Sergei Korolev.

No. 2) The U.S. invested heavily in the space program after Kennedy’s speech about the project, while Soviet political support, in a couple of years, had begun to waver.

No. 3) Luck played a role. Korolev died from a heart attack in 1966 (he was so valuable to the Soviet Union that his real name was not released until after his death).

No. 4) The U.S. took risks in its development of the program, and even risked the lives of its men (like the faulty design of the hatch door which prevented the crew from opening it when a spark caused the oxygen to ignite, which caused the death of the three astronauts of Apollo 1.)  

No. 5) The Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. 

1969 Soviet Union postage stamp of Sergei Korolev. (Wikimedia Commons)

If the Soviet Korolev was the father of the Soviet space rocket program, the America rocket program had no American father. It was von Braun who played the leading role in the design of the space rockets (and he borrowed from Soviet designs when the U.S. was lagging far behind). 

It is rather ironic that the U.S. and Israel raised a hue and cry in the 1960s about the presence of a few German scientists in Egypt, given a secret U.S. intelligence program to bring 1600 Nazi scientists, operatives and engineers from Germany and protect them from capture by Nuremberg war crimes prosecutors and later Nazi hunters. (For more on this, see Linda Hunt’s book, “Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip, 1945 to 1990.”)

Von Braun was not only a rocket scientist he was also an anti-communist propagandist who worked closely with Walt Disney. (Disney made a film about him and his background was purposefully forged: this former Nazi SS officer who worked under Heinrich Himmler, was made into an anti-Nazi dissident.  The truth would have been too embarrassing).  Disney and von Braun helped to mold public opinion, and the latter had a key role in putting pressure on the government to keep funding the program.  U.S. newspapers such as The New York Times made the space program into a national matter of survival, as Douglas Brinkley covers in his book “Moonshot.”  Von Braun also helped to make the moon landing into an essential element of defeating communism.

Military Moon Base 

But U.S. plans for the moon were far more sinister. Project Horizon of 1959 centered on the feasibility of constructing a military base on the moon.  And there were even discussions about whether the country that reached the moon first had the right to own it (very much like the race between colonial powers).  The U.S. seriously talked about taking the military confrontation between the two superpowers into outer space.  It was argued that causing destruction in space would have been better than battling it out here on Earth.

President John F. Kennedy and Wernher von Braun in 1962. (Marshall Space Flight Center/NASA)

One analyst in Business Week explained the economic and political benefit of the moon project: “… a means of giving employment to our scientists and engineers and, at the same time, of giving entertainment to the masses, just as the Middle Ages invented the tournament to give employment to warlike knights” (Leonard Silk, “John Q. Public and the Space Age,” p. 64 of “Reflections on Space: Its Implications for Domestic and International Affairs.”).  There was also a plan by the Air Force in New Mexico to detonate an atomic bomb on the moon to study the effects of moonquakes.

The propaganda thrust of the program was clear from the beginning. Government documents expressed alarm, even in Western Europe, about the rising “prestige” of the U.S.S.R. due to its space accomplishments. Many meetings were held over how to boost U.S. prestige through the space program. The PR was as important as the science; “medical standards” for excluding crews included such factors as “extreme ugliness” or “any deformity which is markedly repulsive” (see the second chapter of “Shoot for the Moon,” by James Donovan).   The Soviet program was more scientific, and that also made the U.S. propaganda task easier.

Neil Armstrong was less jingoistic about his trip to the moon: and the mission insignia of Apollo 11 (designed by the crew) significantly excluded an American flag (unlike patches of other missions) but the bald eagle sent a patriot message. The planting of the U.S. flag was NASA’s order (there were talks of planting a UN flag — there are now six U.S. flags on the moon, but their colors have been faded by sunshine).  Armstrong did not invoke God (unlike Apollo 8 when members of the mission read from Genesis). But Armstrong was a deist and he watched in silence as Buzz Aldrin performed communion before stepping on the moon.

As soon as the U.S. beat the Soviets, interest in moon landings faded and space exploration is no longer a national priority.  The scientific aspects of the space missions were highly exaggerated (just as the military and intelligence purposes were classified).  And the moon, since human feet have stepped upon it, has become less romantic and seems to have inspired less poetry.                                                                                                                              

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the “Historical Dictionary of Lebanon” (1998), “Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and “The Battle for Saudi Arabia” (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil

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