Why was America so much more motivated to explore space in the 1960s than we are today? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
The origins of that answer lie in the late 1950s—1957, to be exact. Remember, it was the height of the Cold War between the Free World and authoritarian communism, and the stakes were very high. In October 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit, it created a sensation—and a frenzy in the United States, over which the beach-ball-sized silver sphere traveled seven times a day. Americans believed their country was technologically superior to the USSR—after all, Americans had split the atom and created the nuclear monster that had ended World War 2.
Sputnik triggered quite a bit of soul-searching—had all that postwar affluence softened the US? In a time when both countries owned massive arsenals of nuclear weapons and long-range bombers, many worried that the Soviets were developing new space weapons—larger warhead-equipped satellites, space stations, etc.—that could be used against America.
Another concern was that of “prestige,” signifying a country’s political strength and reputation. In the global tug of war between the democratic free world, led by the US, and the Communist countries, headed by the USSR, dozens of less advanced nations, many of them recently decolonized, were still undecided as to which side of the ideological rope they would grab onto; in a sense, they were waiting to see which side had the advantage, since they wanted to be on the winning side. The struggle for these undecideds hearts and minds—and pocketbooks, since another worry was the international market for American goods and tools—was a very real part of the Cold War. Technological superiority, particularly its military applications, played a large part in prestige. Until Sputnik, the US had appeared comfortably in the lead. But almost immediately after that triumph, reports and polls showed that American prestige had suffered a severe blow, and Soviet prestige had rocketed higher.
These two concerns—survival and prestige—caused such a concern that both parties in Congress agreed to fund a space program—and such a program, particularly when it involves human spaceflight, requires huge budgets. By the time that Apollo 11 successfully landed the first humans on the moon, it was clear that America had won the Space Race, and the space program ceased to be considered high-priority. NASA’s budget in the mid-sixties, at the height of the Apollo program, was close to 5% of the national budget; in the last several years, it has hovered around .5%. NASA has had many ambitious plans over the years to renew manned space exploration, but without the many billions of dollars only a large and motivated government can provide, funding is very difficult, especially since most of the large-scale plans will entail many years and probably decades to complete. Politicians are reluctant to commit votes and billions to programs without quick results.
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