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The Race to Space: Was it Exploration?


The 20th of July 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, the first man landing on the moon. Everything to do with the Apollo missions was a story of great achievement, risk and the potential of what could happen when people set their minds to do something.

John F. Kennedy set the tone in his speech from September 1962 at Rice University when he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” And the people of the United States responded.

As an explorer the stories of space flight have always fascinated me for the obvious reasons. At the same time I have found myself wondering if the space stories of the 1960’s were exploration stories or were they really defense and political stories. In actuality what was the driver for the race to space?

From an exploration standpoint many discoveries were made and explorations completed in order for Neil Armstrong and company to get to the moon. According to an article in the Daily Telegraph from 2009 there have been over 6,300 technologies created that are now part of our daily lives because of the Apollo launches. These include freeze dried food, the Cat scanner used for the detection of cancer and even the joystick used in game counsels, first used on the lunar rover. Those were all amazing discoveries that have moved us forward as a civilization. In addition there were the amazing discoveries about the moon itself and the realties of outer space.

But then we stopped. From six manned missions that landed on the moon, only 12 people ever walked on the moon between 1969 and 1972. The last person to do so was Harrison Schmitt. There was so much more to be learned but the decision was made to not go again. Why?

There were lots of reasons. Some had to do with finances. Trips to space took significant money that many thought could be used elsewhere. Space travel fits in the category of general science and it is open ended. There are lots of possibilities but not a specific goal so why spend the money. Some could say we learned what was most important therefore no need for more trips to the moon. Maybe we just got bored with going to the moon and needed a new adventure.

I believe that the driver of the space missions was not a desire for discovery it was the desire for one up man ship in the cold war between United States and Russia. Russia had sent people to space and we had to show that we could do one better so we put a man on the moon.

Our driver was not exploration our driver was to prove a point. Once the point was proven there was no motivation to go on. Space travel was a pawn in a political war and once achieved we had to find new pieces to move in that global chess match.

Today we are seeing interest in going to the moon and this time it’s not a government motivation it’s private businesses that is leading the charge. My guess is that once the riddle of space travel is solved by the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, its possibilities will expand and potential will be vast. Exploration historically, whether geographic exploration or technological exploration, when it has a profit motive always goes further and farther.

Christopher Columbus was looking for a faster path to the West Indies to trade spices. The conquistadors went to Central and South America in search of gold and other riches. The East India Company and the Dutch West India Company all had trade and profit as their driving force. Thomas Edison only created inventions that he knew people wanted to buy. What all these explorers had in common was that they were all motivated to find new possibilities to generate profit. Because of that their impact and reach was expansive.

I believe that exploration is always present and always possible. Based on our motivation for that exploration we can know how far we will go in taking the next step beyond the first step. Discoveries are always awaiting if we are willing to explore.

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