Monday, July 20, 2009

Towards a giant step for humanity

The first landing on the moon by US astronauts 40 years ago today illustrates what amazing deeds humanity is capable of, while at the same time showing the limitations immediately placed on these achievements by the narrow confines of the existing social system.

When in May 1961 President Kennedy announced that America would send men to the moon by the end of the decade, he was prompted by Cold War fears of losing out to the Soviet Union in missile technology as well as national pride. Six weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had beaten the United States in the race to put the first man in space when Yuri Gagarin was sent into orbit around the earth.

Kennedy’s challenge required a huge leap in technological creativity, as well as a large-scale commitment of resources. At its peak, the Apollo programme employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities. The US government committed the equivalent of $150 billion at today’s prices to the NASA moon mission.

In 1961, the United States was then at the height of its economic power, after emerging from World War II as the only significant industrial nation. Advanced methods of standardised production of military hardware had enabled the US to overwhelm the German and Japanese armies before launching an economic boom.

But when Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin stepped out on to the lunar surface on 20July 1969 – watched by an estimated one-fifth of the world’s population – this power was waning. America was in a deep social and economic crisis and embroiled in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. The year before, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and Richard Nixon had become president.

By 1971, the US could no longer sustain its post-war role of holding the international currency system together by backing the dollar with gold. On August 15, Nixon was forced to abandon this commitment and a period of inflation and economic crisis followed throughout the world. The last landing on the moon took place in December 1972 as the Apollo programme was scaled back.

Of course, the Apollo programme drove many areas of new technology. Early research into integrated circuits was stimulated by development of the flight computer. The first practical fuel cell was used in Apollo and computer-controlled machining was pioneered in fabricating structural components.

Eventually, these developments found their way into industrial applications and were used to advance the means of production, both in scale and in increasing productivity. They powered the corporate-driven globalisation process from the early 1980s. Just like Apollo, globalisation has given a picture of what’s possible – but what is also out of reach for the majority.

The technology, ingenuity, skills and resources exist to solve major challenges like landing a man on the moon or putting a giant telescope in space. But so long as these achievements remain dependent on corporations that put profit first, they remain out of our hands and cannot be made to serve humanity as a whole.

Today, we have the most advanced technology and science and millions being thrown out of work because of the economic and financial meltdown. Treatment for major illness is restricted by what has to be paid to the pharmaceuticals for new drugs. Billions are squandered on military systems and wars while homelessness, poverty and inequality grows. Corporations and states fiddle while climate change burns up the earth.

These are bigger questions than the often sterile debate about whether to continue with space exploration or not. Socialising the totality of human resources that make such ventures possible is the main priority and spending a moment thinking about how we can achieve that would be a fitting way to mark the anniversary of the historic first moon landing. To paraphrase Armstrong, we need a giant step for humanity.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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