The moon wasn’t always the final frontier. Early dreams of space travel extended well beyond its orbit: think the 1956 American sci-fi film “Forbidden Planet” or the thrilling 1962 “Planet of the Storms,” produced by the Soviet Union. When an American set foot on the moon, though, it became seen as the decisive victory, because the Cold War transformed utopian ideas about the possibilities of human advancement into an imperialistic battle for military and economic might. While the former may capture our sentiments today, the latter fuels the 21st-century space race.
A century ago, fascination with space increased as the potential for global destruction grew larger. In Russia and the early Soviet Union, engineer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky began to theorize early ideas of rocketry and space travel. Amid the destruction of World War I, the upheaval of the Russian Revolution and the depression of the interwar period, Tsiolkovsky believed the cosmos could offer an alternative place for human settlement after impending global destruction. Artists, writers and engineers around the world accordingly depicted space as a new frontier, one that represented the zenith of human accomplishment.
Utopian visions of space travel gave way to measured pragmatism and military competition after World War II, when the United States’ bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki wreaked destruction unlike anything the world had ever seen. Once the Soviet Union developed its own atomic bomb in 1949, the specter of nuclear devastation haunted the globe and propelled Cold War paranoia.
Out of this came the space race: a competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in which the winner would have an upper hand in launching missiles and defending against attacks. The U.S. and Soviet governments continued to portray space travel as a utopian dream to domestic, civilian audiences, framing it through art, music and pop culture as a romantic escape or glorious future.
Behind the scenes, they engaged in a bare-knuckled competition for military might. Indeed, the United States was willing to collaborate with scientists such as former Nazi engineer Wernher von Braun to defeat the Soviets — a far cry from the space program’s alleged utopian and pacifist goals.
The Cold War was not just a military rivalry between superpowers. It was also an ideological one that pit communism against capitalism. The United States and the Soviet Union both sought to extend their influence across the world, deploying cultural propaganda and military force to attempt to bring countries such as India, Ghana, Cuba and Nicaragua into their sphere of control. “Nonaligned” countries, especially the many African and Asian nations that fought for independence from imperial powers after World War II, became sites for proxy wars. The cosmos was no exception. Space represented the ultimate nonaligned sphere — a new territory for the planting of flags, ripe for colonization.
For much of the 1960s, it was a contest the United States was losing. The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 was swiftly followed by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s success as the first man to orbit Earth in 1961. A series of cosmonauts came in the next few years, including Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in 1963. (The United States did not send a woman into space for 20 more years, when Sally Ride flew aboard the Challenger in 1983.) In 1965, the Soviets further cemented their success with the flight of Alexei Leonov, who became the first man to do a spacewalk. Meanwhile, NASA suffered setbacks in the Apollo program and had to work to regain public support for what increasingly seemed like interstellar folly. The Soviets were dominant.
So when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off the Apollo Lunar Module onto the uneven surface of the moon, it represented both the United States’ first major success and a substantial escalation in the space race. Marred by accidents and malfunctions, the Soviet moonshot lagged far behind NASA’s.
The plaque left on the moon offers the inscription: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” In many ways, this was true. Apollo 11 was a “giant leap” for humankind, a momentous occasion in global history where utopian dreams and scientific pragmatism were perfectly aligned.
Even more telling was Aldrin’s planting of the American flag in the dusty lunar rocks. The mission was, at its core, a territorial conquest. The United States had gotten there first and staked its claim. All those to follow (and none did) would have to reckon with its projection of imperial might in space. In an era of terrestrial decolonization, the moon landing represented an extraterrestrial colonial victory for the United States.
The imperialism driving the moon landing matters today, especially because the parallels between now and then are striking: The United States is still fighting proxy wars and promoting capitalist ideology in countries undergoing political transition. The country is racing against economic and military powers such as China and Russia to lay claim to undeveloped natural resources in the Arctic. With each passing day, we come ever closer to environmental disaster. Trump’s Space Force openly seeks to militarize space, not explore it.
Fifty years on, the United States is less interested in cultivating cosmic hopes and aspirations than it is in projecting U.S. power — and we might do well to keep this in mind amid the celebratory stories, monuments and documentaries. It’s not quite as simple or utopian as one “giant leap for mankind,” as much as we might wish it were. Space may represent a new world, but more often than not, we bring our earthly baggage into orbit.