Fifty years ago, on May 25th, 1961, President John Kennedy summoned a joint session of Congress and asked America to commit itself to the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth. If it succeeded, he said, it would not be one man going to the moon—“it will be an entire nation.” A little over eight years later, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step onto the lunar surface, the snowy images beamed down to Houston stamped an indelible memory on a generation of earthlings.
Kennedy was not especially interested in space, and said as much in private. But after the Soviet Union sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit he believed it to be vital for America to take on and beat the Soviets at something very hard. The moon fitted this need like a glove.
When Space Shuttle Atlantis makes its final voyage in mid-July, the whole 30-year programme of shuttle flights will come to an end. For years, American spacefarers bound even for low-earth orbit will have to hitch a ride on a Russian craft or one of the as yet unproven vehicles under development by the private sector.
To many Americans, neglecting human space flight this way looks like a sorry end to the glorious chapter Kennedy opened half a century ago. He set out to make America’s achievements in space an emblem of national greatness, and the project succeeded. Yet it did not escape the notice of critics even at the time that this entailed an irony: the Apollo programme, which was summoned into being in order to demonstrate the superiority of the free-market system, succeeded by mobilising vast public resources within a centralised bureaucracy under government direction. In other words, it mimicked aspects of the very command economy it was designed to repudiate…