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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


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.”