The lunar landing is considered one of America’s towering triumphs of Cold War competition. Through determination and ingenuity, we put men on the moon, and returning has been a dream ever since.
Largely missing from history, though, is the skepticism from the public, politicians, and even an ex-president about the entire project. One of America’s proudest achievements was not a universally loved endeavor.
Fiscal conservatives like Barry Goldwater were against it, saying in 1963 it was a wasteful endeavor. The irony? He did so at a $100-a-plate dinner, $774 today. The same year Goldwater said the US was “moon struck” and that while the country “fixes upon it, we could lose the earth or be buried in it.”
It wasn’t just people against government spending on principle who pooh-poohed the mission, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the very president who created NASA, was against it too. Eisenhower said Kennedy’s moon goal was “almost hysterical” and that the added tax burden was not worth it, saying:
“I never believed that a spectacular dash to the moon, vastly deepening our debt, is worth the added tax burden it will eventually impose upon our citizens.”
He didn’t like the direction NASA was heading, saying it had become bloated. And while he thought the U.S. would get people on the moon eventually, Eisenhower wanted it to be “an outgrowth of demonstrably valuable space operation.” As for the short term plan? He didn’t mince words saying, “Anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts….The voyage to the moon will set a new record for a trip taken on borrowed money.”
In fact, the majority of Americans did not support the idea of a moon landing, and thought the government was spending too much on space. Gallup says most of its polls conducted during the 1960s showed the majority of Americans thought it was not worth the cost. In 1965, only 39% supported it. Approval of the moon landing improved as it approached, with a 1969 Harris poll showing 51% approval among Americans. But another poll that same year still showed more Americans were against it than for it. Even astronomers weren’t that psyched on the idea. If going to the moon had been put to a referendum, it may never have even happened.
When the landing did finally happen, when mankind set foot on the moon for the first time and the whole world saw it live on television, the cynicism dropped away, and many of those who dismissed it declared it a rousing triumph. Goldwater called the astronauts “the only national heroes we have” and credited them with “giving inspiration and hope to the young people of our country.” Public perception changed too, with polls conducted after the landing looking very different than the ones before. In 1989, approval of the moon landing was at 77%. Eisenhower wasn’t alive to see it happen, but maybe if he had been he would have been swayed too.
Gallup did a poll shortly after the moon landing asking Americans wether they favored going to Mars, and only 39% favored an attempt. Just as Elon Musk and and Jeff Bezos have reignited interest in the moon with their space travel projects, they’ve also made getting to Mars seem within reach. Like Kennedy, they are driven by a singular vision of a symbolic and historic feat for humanity—though they don’t have to worry about opinion polls and the skepticism of the general public. Ad astra.