Photo: AP

On July 13, 1969, just a few days before Apollo XI lifted off into the sky, newspapers across the country ran a syndicated column by Drew Pearson, an infamous figure in mid-century American journalism. Perhaps most famously, he broke the story about General George S. Patton slapping a soldier during World War II. Pearson was a Washington insider, known to combine facts with rumors in a manner that would make modern cable news hosts blush. Although a staunch opponent of McCarthyism and general champion of liberal causes, his later years found him descend into bizarre rants about the “disease” of homosexuality that is “completely bipartisan and has no respect for people in high places.”

To be homophobic in the 1960s, especially among Washington insiders, was hardly a distinguishing characteristic. Neither, for that matter, was criticizing the Apollo program, as Pearson did. His column that day began:

“At Cape Kennedy, the United States is about to launch the most carefully rehearsed, most expensive, most unnecessary project of this century, by which man will reach a piece of drab, radioactive, lava-like real estate hitherto romantic because of distance—the moon.”

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That’s a hefty dose of hyperbole. But he wasn’t alone. Polls throughout the decade—and for many years after—repeatedly found the majority of Americans thought federal dollars were better spent elsewhere.

In fact, the only time polling ever indicated majority support for the Apollo program came immediately after the moon landing, only to sink back below 50 percent shortly thereafter. As NASA historian Roger Launius wrote in a 2003 paper, “And even then only a measly 53 percent agreed that the result justified the expense, despite the fact that the landing was perhaps the most momentous event in human history since it became the first instance in which the human race became bi-planetary.”

How did “perhaps the most momentous event in human history” and one of the most-watched television events poll so badly? To be sure, it’s easy to dismiss polling figures as fundamentally flawed measures of what’s important to us, especially nowadays. Certainly, the moon landing is now revered as one of our country’s greatest triumphs and polling conducted since the 1980s consistently show Americans believe it was worth it.

But people like Pearson saw something most today do not, about the problems they were facing and the choices made, that have been smoothed out over time to form a tidy narrative about American greatness. We landed two men on the moon and returned them safely in a supposed triumph of democracy over dictatorship. Yet, ironically, half of Americans, millions upon millions of voters, told pollsters that they wished they hadn’t done it.

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In the sense that it polled divisively, the Apollo program is in good company. It joins, among others, two controversial figures from the 1960s who have since become icons of American greatness: Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. The first was a deeply unpopular American figure back then (at least in white America), first for converting to Islam and then for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War at a time when the war was still popular among Americans. It was only decades later that Ali became what he is today.

Similarly, King was infamously divisive during his lifetime. In fact, “divisive” may be too kind to his contemporaries. After a 1999 Gallup survey found King was voted the second most admired person of the century, the polling company looked back on their historical results:

“In 1963, King had a 41% positive and a 37% negative rating; in 1964, it was 43% positive and 39% negative; in 1965, his rating was 45% positive and 45% negative; and in 1966 — the last Gallup measure of King using this scalometer procedure — it was 32% positive and 63% negative.”

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(What did poll well in the 1960s, you might be curious to know? Kennedy [as president], labor unions, having three or more children, and drinking alcohol.)

King and Ali of course, were held in much higher regard by African-Americans than white Americans. Similarly, the Apollo program was broadly divided by race. According to David Nye, professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark, as documented in his paper “Don’t Fly Us to the Moon,” the strongest support for the Apollo program came from “men, the educated, and the wealthy” while “African-Americans, women, the least educated, and the poor” held the strongest opposition to the program.

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This scans, since the opposition argued there were more urgent needs and better uses of $25.4 billion (about $200 billion today, give or take) than proving we could go to the moon. It makes sense people who would find this argument attractive are those who could stand to benefit from government resources, such as the less educated, poorer, or marginalized minorities.

Likewise, of course those at the top of the socioeconomic ladder would consider smashing the Ruskies to be a worthy use of government funds, lest we forget that was the whole point of the Apollo program to begin with. A 1963 public relations report commissioned by Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor which built the lunar module, found “support was based more on Cold War fears than the program itself.” Or, to put it another way, people didn’t give a crap about going to the moon for its own sake.

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In this respect, the people of the United States were taking President Kennedy’s lead. In his study, Launius summarized a conversation between President Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb on November 21, 1962, which was taped but only released decades later. In the conversation, Kennedy told Webb in no uncertain terms what this was all about:

‘‘Everything that we do should be tied into getting on to the Moon ahead of the Russians. We ought to get it really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top priority program of the agency and one…of the top priorities of the United States government.’’

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To the Americans for whom the struggles of daily life in a capitalist society—not the threat of landing on an extraterrestrial body after another country did—was their most immediate threat, it’s easy to see how this felt like a perverse extravagance. The National Urban League’s Whitney Young observed, as quoted by Jill Lepore in the New York Times:

“It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon,” Young complained. “It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.”

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Young, who was black, was part of a larger wave of African-American opposition to the Apollo program, which has been well-documented and memorialized with the song “Whitey on the Moon” (Sample lyrics: “I can’t pay no doctor bill / but Whitey’s on the moon / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / while Whitey’s on the moon”).

But it would be overly reductive to say support and opposition for the Apollo program neatly divided amongst racial lines. Pearson, for his part, was a white man. So too was New Jersey Congressman Charles Joelson, who, as quoted in a Pearson column the day before liftoff, composed a poem illustrating what Joelson called “our warped schedule of priorities at a time of despair in our cities,” referring to the joint phenomena of white flight and urban decay.

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As far as poems written by soldiers turned lawyers turned politicians go, Joelson’s could have been worse, but not by much. I’ll spare you the whole thing—which Pearson for some reason saw fit to re-print in its entirety—but here’s a sampling:

“It will be written that in 1969,

Primitive man canned himself

And catapulted through the void,

While hunger, hate and sickness stalked his earth.

Choosing not to try for heaven, just the moon.”

Artistically challenged as it was, it echoed the wider critique that, surely, surely there were better uses of this money.

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In retrospect, there is certainly an excellent case to be made that the Apollo program was worth the money, even before pricing out the priceless benefits like national pride, morale, and the collective sense of accomplishment that comes from achieving such an improbable feat.

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I don’t need to belabor these points because it is one my colleague David Tracy ably made, and we as a country have been making them in various forms over and over for the last 50 years. But it is one that historian Douglas Brinkley makes in his book American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (again, as quoted by Lepore in the Times):

“The technology that America reaped from the federal investment in space hardware (satellite reconnaissance, biomedical equipment, lightweight materials, water-purification systems, improved computing systems and a global search-and-rescue system) has earned its worth multiple times over.”

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Still, the dollars and cents argument misses something fundamental, a lesson this country could have learned but didn’t. After all, it’s more of a happy coincidence than anything else that Apollo was a net profit, given Kennedy himself made clear Apollo was about putting the stars and stripes on a space rock before a hammer and sickle. At the time, our leaders made the choice to put a non-trivial portion of the federal budget towards a project of dubious merit and questionable public support instead of tangibly improving the lives of millions of Americans. That sounds familiar.

Although many of the Apollo opponents called for the money to go to a social welfare program instead, some were concerned about other issues, such as the environment, a growing concern at the time, particularly after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. Launius found the polls in the 1960s reflected that. “Most Americans seemingly preferred doing something about air and water pollution, job training for unskilled workers, national beautification, and poverty before spending federal funds on human spaceflight,” he found. As rad as the moon landing was, it’s hard to argue with that.

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And here we are, 50 years later, and something still needs to be done with air and water pollution, job training for unskilled workers, and poverty (I am, admittedly, fuzzy on what “national beautification” means, but I assume it doesn’t mean rich people owning most of the mountain west). And they didn’t even know about carbon emissions then.

To an extent, the naysayers like Pearson were awe-inspired by the accomplishment once it actually took place, as any living, feeling human ought to have been. But the aspect he marveled over most was not the towering rocket climbing into the sky, but the fact that industry and government worked together—and political divisiveness did not interfere—necessary conditions for any national accomplishment whether it’s providing health care for all citizens, drastically reduced poverty, or landing on the moon. To the extent that the moon landing was supposed to be a testament to our ability to accomplish great things, it’s hard to reckon with the fact that other countries have accomplished some of the very things Americans in the 1960s wished our government could.

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Pearson’s column on July 21, 1969, after witnessing the launch from the Kennedy Space Center himself, was, for some reason, written in the format of a letter to his grandson. Some of it is predictably cringe-worthy given that choice. Others sting:

“But in inner space, the big question is: Can we apply the same teamwork to solving our urgent problems at home that we applied to reaching the moon? If we don’t, if we don’t clean up our water supply and purify our air and stop the decay of our big cities, we might very well become a second-class power.”

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Most of the newspapers around the country that ran the column ignored the substance and tone of his dispatch, instead latching onto one ancillary observation he made that NASA welcomed observers to their launch, unlike the Soviets which held theirs in private. “UNLIKE THE SOVIETS” blared one representative headline, recalling the only reason why Americans ever cared about the Apollo program to begin with.

But it is the final words of that column which resonate today, where our most urgent threat remains not the looming specter of international communism, but many of the same issues Apollo detractors wish we addressed then. After lamenting the political gridlock which prevented cleaning up the Potomac River in Washington, leaving it addled with sewage, here’s what Pearson wrote to his grandson and the country:

“I didn’t mean to give you a lecture. But when I see the big cities neglected, our rivers getting more and more poisoned and the air we breathe getting more and more filled with auto exhaust, I wonder whether the day may not come when we’ll have to go and live on the moon.”

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He wasn’t far off. “We humans have to go to space if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization,” billionaire Jeff Bezos said in a recent interview. “We are in the process of destroying this planet.”

When I hear one of the richest men in the world say something like that, I cannot help but feel Pearson and his fellow Apollo critics were on the right side of history. Landing on the moon is only a worthy inspirational accomplishment if it inspires other worthy accomplishments. Instead, we have billionaires dreaming of a planetary exodus.

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It is not that America can no longer accomplish grand, wondrous, improbable feats, but that we pick them poorly. A generation was inspired by Neil Armstrong’s broadcast from the moon, but not my generation. We haven’t seen anything like that. What we have seen is two perpetual wars, one great recession, no medical coverage, and the ongoing destruction of our planet. To me, the moon landing doesn’t feel like a giant leap for mankind, because we have taken so many backwards steps since.

I don’t think Pearson is alone among people who witnessed the moon landing and spotted it for what it was. All of this celebratory flag-waving about American greatness, the post hoc and often disingenuous idolization of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other courageous, righteous Americans who tried but too often failed to correct our nation’s values, is a facade by a generation that failed to leave the world better for the next one.

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It’s no coincidence the moon landing didn’t start polling well until the late ’70s and early 1980s, when Boomers grew up and became the predominant audience for such public opinion gauging. The biggest tell of the Boomer generation is they lionized events and public figures of the past because they had no genuine accomplishments of their own to identify. It is all part of a grand national lie about who we are and what we’ve done, because they cannot face the truth that they made everything worse.

“Unfortunately, this will be your problem,” Pearson wrote to his grandson, referring back to the decaying cities, the polluted air, and every other problem for which Pearson wasn’t yet aware but would soon become real. “It’s not a fair inheritance to give you, but the older generation has fouled it up so badly that I doubt that we can ever solve it. With a fresh approach, perhaps you can.”