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Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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A Tribute to Neil Armstrong... or 'Where's that f*****g space elevator?


This reprinted article is by way of a semi-apology. I haven't found the time to write my usual science piece for this issue of The Point, so here is an article of mine on the space race and some thoughts on it from our first issue a couple of years back, so its a bit of science history, a bit of internationalism and a bit of  - maybe- controversy. The Point has grown by leaps and bounds since its first issue and we now have a much bigger readership than we had back then, so chances are many of you will be coming to this article for the first time. Hope you enjoy it and that it provokes some thought.


The untimely death of Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on another world, and a descendant of Scots, touched many millions across the world. It seemed to remind us of a different, better era. By way of tribute we republish an article by Steve Arnott written on the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission which takes a look at a subject rarely touched on by the left when discussing the Soviet Bloc and the cold war – the space race and the historic achievements that came from it.



 The cold war and the race for space


If you grew up in the sixties, seventies and eighties the threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation was real and ever present – a constant dark shadow of possibility. Although some on the right argued that MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – meant that a third world war would never happen, and some on the left argued that neither the Stalinist bureaucrats of the Soviet Bloc or the capitalist strategists of the West had any interest in killing ‘the goose that laid the golden egg’, there seemed always the terrifying possibility of a Failsafe mistake, a Dr. Strangelove madness, driving the whole human race to destruction. One of my earliest dreams I can remember, at the tender age of seven, was of painting the houses in my village white. I must have taken in some ‘protect and survive’ government propaganda (white paint, we were told, would reflect radiation better) . My sister was to have nightmares about nuclear war well into her late teens. And she hadn’t even seen Threads.

This was the unreal reality of the cold war – two ideologically opposed armed camps who collectively wielded a most modern terror, one of nuclear annihilation from whom no-one on the face of planet Earth could flee. When the Soviet Bloc finally collapsed in the late eighties there was palpable sense of relief amongst the discomfort at the poisonous Reaganite/Thatcherite free market triumphalism – at least we were no longer three minutes to midnight in terms of the fabled 'nuclear clock' which marked our species' closeness to its atomic self destruction.

At the time – along with other Marxists – I knew the capitalist triumphalism would be short lived. Two decades later that has proven to be correct. And along with Trotsky I agreed that socialism would not be able to speak its name without a blush of shame again until the Stalinist whip was broken and burned on the pyre of history. But those narratives and arguments will be dealt with elsewhere. Specifically, in this article, I want to ask the question – did any good at all come from the cold war and its corollary, the arms race? And in answer I want to argue that, yes, dialectically, the phenomena we call the space race – a race that the nuclear arms race gave rise to, as its progeny and proxy - ultimately provided a keynote of hope, humanity and peaceful progress in the otherwise largely bleak and barbaric history of the cold war.

This year (2009) saw the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. It also saw the fortieth anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon. To mark that occasion the Smithsonian Institute in the US invited a number of those intimately involved in the Apollo programme to address an audience of scientists, science journalists and space enthusiasts in Washington DC. The most eagerly anticipated speaker was Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the lunar surface.

Armstrong has been a virtual recluse in media terms, considering he is probably one of the most famous men on the planet, and for the last twenty or so years has given virtually no interviews. He insists that he will only comment on factual matters in relation to the moon landing, and not on how he felt about it subjectively. This is not because - as a few unhinged conspiracy theorists would have you believe - NASA faked landing on the moon no less than six times, but because, as Armstrong correctly argues, the huge scientific and engineering achievement that was the moon landings represented a collective effort involving over 400, 000 people in engineering, construction, planning, support, science and logistics.

With typical modesty, Armstrong devoted only a single sentence of an eighteen minute talk to the celebrated Apollo 11 mission. In a short professorial lecture 'Goddard, Governance and Geophysics' - which was a masterpiece of understatement -Armstrong instead outlined the global historical and scientific background that gave rise to the space race. Armstrong stayed away from any overtly political comment. (I think we can probably safely surmise that the US government ensured that none of those deemed to have 'The Right Stuff' were paid up members of the IWW or the International Spartacist League) but it was certainly 'long view of history' stuff – and. whether consciously or not, – argued a dialectical and material relationship between science, technology, war, politics and the space race which was both insightful and refreshingly honest.

To sum up: modern ballistic rocket begins on a sound engineering and experimental basis with the work of Robert Goddard in the US in the twenties. He is however, a prophet largely ignored in his own land. The Nazis in Germany, however, take more than a passing interest in his work. In the course of World War II Nazi scientists including Werner Von Braun who will later work with NASA, develop the V2 ballistic missile which is used to devastating effect towards the end of the war. With the development of the atomic bomb at the end of the war, a new arms race begins between two opposing models of governance represented by the 'superpowers,' the USA and the USSR, which drives the development of the ballistic missile for military purposes. In 1957, International Geophysical Year, scientists postulate seriously for the first time the possibility of sending a satellite into Earth orbit and the huge scientific possibilities of mastery of such a technology. An unofficial 'race' begins to put the first satellite into space which the USSR wins within a few months. The successful launch of Sputnik 1 and its subsequent orbiting of the earth for over two months excited and fascinated the world (and terrified a cold war gripped, red menace obsessed America). The Space Race was on and was to dominate the public imagination for the next two decades, becoming 'the ultimate peaceful competition'. Although all of the early successes belong to the Soviet Union, the zenith of the space race is reached with the NASA's manned missions to the moon.

Implicit in Armstrong's argument is the idea that the space race allowed a peaceful diversionary sphere for the cold war to be fought out in, and that perhaps it contributed to making the self immolation of humanity in thermonuclear war a little less likely.

(Armstrong's full talk, for reasons unknown, is no longer available on YouTube)

Early Soviet domination

In the early sixties the then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was able to make the claim that the Soviet Bloc would overtake the West in terms of its technological and industrial capacity within a decade – and be taken seriously.

The success of the Sputnik programme was rapidly followed by more spectacular firsts which seemed to demonstrate the superiority of the planned economy (in reality a bureaucratic command economy). On April 12th 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a tiny cosmonaut at five foot two, (in terms of ballistic payload and capsule space, size was very important), became the first human being to leave the gravitational bonds of the planet and travel through outer space in orbit around the earth. His flight lasted 108 minutes before he returned successfully to terra firma to be hailed a Hero of the Soviet Union – not bad for an apprentice foundry man whose peasant family had suffered directly at the hands of the Nazis less than two decades previously, and whose self taught flying skills had led him on a long journey into the Soviet space program.

Although the US followed Gagarin's ground breaking flight with  Alan Shepard's sub-orbital flight and John Glen's orbit of the Earth in 1962, the Soviets continued to make all the running, with the first dual manned space flights, in space simultaneously and making radio contact with one another. In another first, on June 16th 1963, the Soviets sent the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into space.

It should perhaps be pointed out here, however, that these early successes were more than just feats of technology and political oneupmanship. Real and important science was also being done. The Sputnik missions helped to determine the density of the upper atmosphere, for instance. It also provided vital information on how radio emissions spread in the ionosphere. Manned and animal flights provided vital data on how organisms coped without gravity and on levels of solar and gamma radiation in outer space.

JFK targets the moon

Stung by early Soviet successes America's new president John F. Kennedy, in an address to congress on the 25th of May 1961, targeted a first manned landing on the moon as a way to restore US superpower prestige and take the new high ground in space. 'Closing the missile gap' had been a theme of his successful presidential campaign but it was the declaration that the U.S should aim to 'land a man on the moon and return safely within this decade' that set the public imagination on fire.

There is some evidence that Kennedy played to different galleries in different ways to build support for what is now arguably his greatest and most lasting legacy – assuring liberals and progressives of the peaceful and scientific nature of the project, while playing the patriotic card about beating the Russians to the moon for the right.

In his famous and oft quoted speech at Rice University in September of 1962 ('we choose to go the moon and do these other things not because it is easy, but because it is hard' (Link 1) Kennedy walked both lines with great skill, arguing that the US should be a leader in space to ensure the new high frontier would be a frontier for science and peace and be empty of 'weapons of mass destruction'.

He told his audience:

The Mariner spacecraft now on its way to Venus is the most intricate instrument in the history of space science. The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the forty yard lines...For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a terrifying new theatre of war

The resulting Apollo programme was not without its setbacks and its critics – three astronauts burned to death in a ground based training flight for Apollo 1, and many on the left argued that the money would be better spent on social programmes. Why spend such vast sums on exploring space, went the argument, when there were so many problems left unresolved here on Earth? (Unfortunately, the same Luddite arguments can still be heard today).

A great achievement of modernity

In contrast to the gulags, and the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution, to the imperialist misadventure in Vietnam, the McCarthy witch hunts, and the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America, the space race, and in particular the taking of the human experience to another world in space was one of the great achievements of modernity, and for the superpowers in particular in the post war decades. Although the Soviets were the first to land an unmanned vehicle on the moon (Luna 2 was the first Earth vehicle to reach the moon in September 1959, - it crashed) the Apollo programme was a huge success and represents the apogee of manned space exploration thus far.

All in all, 12 men landed on the moon, walked upon its surface, and carried out scientific experiments (6 of whom were of Scottish descent, would you believe?). Even the 'failure' of the Apollo 13 mission which had to be aborted after an onboard explosion in the fuel mixing tank, was a huge success in that it showed the ability to cope with crisis and the unexpected, and return astronauts safely to Earth against the odds.

The heroism, dedication and professionalism of these men – indeed of every astronaut of whatever gender or nation who has ever strapped themselves into a chair ready for blast off – surely cannot be doubted. Essentially these guys sat on top of a huge skyscraper filled with the most highly combustible liquid fuel and let it be set off in a controlled explosion underneath them, trusting to the laws of physics, Newtonian ballistics, and the dedication and skill of the hundreds of thousands involved in building the Saturn V rocket to deliver them safely from earth's gravity and into space – with its own massive dangers of zero gravity, gamma and solar radiation and micro meteorite impacts. They floated in a glorified tin can (the Bowie song was not that far off the mark) with orders of magnitude less computing power than the average mobile phone of today, landed on an unknown world in an untried vehicle, with only one shot at leaving again successfully, walked on the unknown dusty surface of an airless world where one small failure in their suit apparatus may have meant instant death, and came back again, with all the hazards or re-entry into the earth's atmosphere at several thousand miles an hour.

Marvellously, and for the first time in human history, all of this experience was captured on camera and watched on television by billions across the world. It was a collective human adventure. Although he did not live to see it Kennedy had instinctively understood that the sending of unmanned probes or robot craft to other worlds would not grasp the imagination of the world the way that human exploration, with all its attendant risks, drama and subjective experience could. (Link 4)

All of the astronauts appeared to be deeply moved and in some cases dramatically changed by the experience. Some turned profoundly to religion, at least one became a prominent advocate of UFO research. Almost all say the experience brought home to them the enormous singularity of Earth in our solar system as a planet which alone, at the present time, can sustain complex life. It's not uncommon for Apollo astronauts during interviews to comment on our world's fragility, stressing our common humanity and the need to look after the only world we have. The iconic 'Earthrise' photograph (see below), taken during Apollo 8's orbit of the moon – the very first picture of the whole of Earth taken from space – is credited by some with creating a paradigm shift in humanity's view of its place in the cosmos, and giving a huge boost to the nascent 'green' movement.

As Jim Lovell of Apollo 8 and 13 said:

We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon, you can put your thumb up, and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you have ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself, all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are. But then how fortunate we are to have this body, and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.

So why did the Soviets 'lose' the race to the moon after making so much of the early running? A detailed and plausible explanation can be found in full at the end of this essay (Link 2)

However, I think that a parallel can be broadly drawn with the space race and the development of the Soviet economy as a whole. Just as the Soviet Union developed from being a backward agrarian economy to being the world's second superpower from the fifties through to the eighties on the basis of the planned economy – 'despite Stalinism, not because of it', yet failed to keep pace with the West in terms of modern consumer goods and information technology because the bureaucratic command economy – essentially conservative and paranoid in its mode of being – could not adapt quickly enough, so it was also with the space race. In the early years a command bureaucracy, scanter regard for human safety, and secrecy were positive boons in developing quickly sufficiently efficient rockets and engineering to place capsules in orbit and even crudely hit the moon, as if were just a target. Those same advantages became huge disadvantages however, when a more complex project was required, and the more open and critical input of scientists, engineers and the astronauts themselves, in a liberal democratic society, allied to the huge collective and very public national effort that was the Apollo program, won the day.

Post Apollo – International co-operation and 'star wars' sabre rattling

In terms of popular cultural conception the space race could be said to have come to an end in 1975 with the joint Apollo Soyuz missions. Soviet orbiting spacecraft Soyuz 19 met and docked with an Apollo command module in orbit, with both sets of astronauts/cosmonauts crossing over into each others ships, exchanging flags, pleasantries and gifts for the world's watching media, and then getting on with doing some actual science together. It was a powerful signal of the new era of détente and was a harbinger of continued practical collaboration in space that continued right up to and after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, with joint and international projects on the Skylab and Mir space stations, and from 1994 onwards in the Shuttle/International Space Station programs.

The picture is not wholly one of harmony and co-operation in space, however. The Thatcher/Reagan era saw a return to ideological belligerence in space with the raising by Reagan of the infamous 'Star Wars' project. The idea of a missile shield in space, effectively negating the idea of mutually assured destruction or of multilateral nuclear disarmament through treaty was always more propaganda than reality, though huge resources were spent on it. One commentator compared the idea of stopping missile assaults with other missiles sub-orbitally as 'trying to stop a bullet in flight by firing another bullet at it.' Nevertheless, it placed a huge strain on Soviet-West relations in the eighties, with some pro-Soviet Stalinist apologists even blaming the collapse of the Soviet Bloc on it (the 'theory' goes that the Soviets couldn't keep up with US Star Wars military expenditure and attempts to do so caused their own economies to stagnate).

Ironically enough, nearly 50 years on from Kennedy's speech about keeping 'weapons of mass destruction' out of space, the findings of science have indicated that, once again, technologies developed for war and destruction may be required to actually ensure the continued existence of the human race.

Darwinian science and palaeontology have determined that there have been at least five mass species extinctions in Earth's past, and at least two of these were due to strikes from asteroids colliding with Earth. Astronomers have determined that potentially devastating asteroid collisions occur frequently in geological terms and that one is due to hit the Earth again anytime in the next 100, 000 years. This threat is real and already considerable resources are used to try and track the orbits of asteroids and comets that may come close to the Earth (link 4).

Only a nuclear strike or even a series of nuclear strikes would have the possibility of diverting a large asteroid on collision course with our planet. While most socialist and progressives would instinctively be suspicious about an orbital platform carrying nuclear missiles, such a platform, as a matter of scientific fact, may be the only way to guarantee the continued existence of humanity on the planet against such a cosmic collision. Of course, of such a thing was ever to be built we would have to ensure it was under multinational control and failsafed so that any weapons it carried could never be pointed at the Earth itself.


So is Neil Armstrong right when he implies that the space race – 'the ultimate peaceful competition' contributed to keeping the missiles in their silos and a humanity safe in their beds at night? I don't think the point can be entirely dismissed. While I'm certain that other factors were perhaps more decisive - not least the fact that both sets of reactionaries with their fingers on the button must have known that, contrary to the M*A*S*H theme song, suicide would not be painless - perhaps the great achievements of the space race not only diverted us, but spoke to the better angels of our nature.

Michael Collins, the third member of the Apollo 11 mission who orbited the moon while waiting for Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to land and return, and is one of a handful ever to have gazed on its dark side, makes the following point:

When we came back and we went all around the world, everywhere we went, people said 'we did it'. Not you guys did it. Not the Americans did it. But we did it – meaning all of humanity. And that was a beautiful thing. Ephemeral – but beautiful.

It appals me that I still occasionally meet otherwise intelligent people who want to cast their lot in with the flat Earthers and the creationists, and insist this great human achievement was faked. What! Six times! And all those thousands of people have kept mum for forty years! As a brief rationalist antidote to such gobsmacking human stupidity please check out Link 5, which sees the National Geographic provide as much debunking of the faked moon landing 'theory' as any reasonable person should require. Interestingly enough, the Soviet Union never once made this ridiculous claim.

And that should tell you everything.

As this article is being written it's just been announced by NASA that their latest probe has found substantial reserves of water ice beneath the surface of the moon. This stunning discovery revolutionises our previous conception – that the moon was a dead, dusty planet. Now we know it's technically possible to build bases and stay on the moon for longer periods of time. We already know that Mars was once flooded with water and still holds water as ice, and there is evidence to suggest Mars may once, or possibly still, have been home to microbial life. We know that Europa, the ice covered moon of Jupiter has a vast ocean of water, heated by Jupiter's gravitational pull, underneath the surface. Many scientists think that, within our solar system, this presents the best candidate for finding complex extra terrestrial life.

As socialists we call on working people everywhere to throw off their chains. We know they have a world to win. And many will still argue that first and foremost we need to solve our terrestrial problems before even thinking of the great beyond. I don't agree.

Like the struggle for social justice, the struggle to expand the boundaries of human knowledge ennobles each and every one of us. These are not dichotomies, but vital threads in the history of human progress

We have a world to win, and a universe to explore.

It's time to take the next, bigger step. It should be done collectively, peacefully and be part of a truly international effort. And perhaps this time the 'we' needn't be ephemeral.


Link 1 – Kennedy 'we go to the moon' speech

Link 2 – Why the soviets lost the moon race

Link 3 – Comet Shoemaker Levy hits Jupiter

Link 4 – Apollo 11 Moon Landing

Link 5 – Debunking 'faked moon landing' conspiracy theories

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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