The 1969 moon landing was a seminal moment of the 20th century and probably the most definitive show of American dominance – on this planet, at least. Moon exploration was ostensibly abandoned decades ago – until Trump resurrected the dream – but space travel makes for good entertainment and the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man is set for theatrical release on October 12.
It appears the film is a family drama that just happens to involve a trip to the moon, but the decision to omit a scene about the iconic flag planting on the moon’s surface has sparked controversy. While the film’s director denied that it was a political decision, lead actor Ryan Gosling stoked the fires of debate when he said the moon landing “transcended countries and borders” and was “widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it.” The statement was derided as anti-American and historically inaccurate, and while Gosling is mistaken in thinking that the moon landing was not “widely regarded” as a U.S. victory over Soviet rivals during the height of the Cold War, little does he realize that his utopian vision of a cooperative moon mission almost became a reality.
A Grand Vision
Historical accuracy – or a lack of it – has played a central role in the uproar surrounding the omitted flag planting scene. If historical fact actually mattered, and if the filmmakers had a genuine desire to bring into question the U.S. space program and its associated narrative of American exceptionalism, it wouldn’t be that difficult. All they would have to do is include a few characters based on the hundreds of imported Nazi aerospace engineers whose work actually made the moon missions possible. But that would obviously be beyond the pale – not to mention commercial interests, even progressive Hollywood needs to stick to the official narrative in order to hold their noses up at it. But that was not the only aspect of the moon mission quickly swept under the carpet.
It was President John F. Kennedy who first launched America’s vision to put a man on the moon. To some degree, Kennedy’s aim was couched in competition with the Soviets, but there is evidence to suggest that his true goal was to end the Cold War by cooperating with Russia on a joint effort to land on the moon.
In 1997, Sergei Krushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, revealed before delivering a speech at NASA, that his father had received multiple offers by Kennedy to join a coordinated space program. Speaking to the SpaceCast News Service, Sergei said that his father had initially rejected the idea, but that he had changed his mind and decided to accept Kennedy’s offer in late 1963. “My father decided that maybe he should accept [Kennedy’s] offer, given the state of the space programs of the two countries [in 1963]”, he said.
Sergei Krushchev also told PBS in 1999 that:
It was two proposals, which came from the American side of the corporation in the moon project. First in Vienna in 1960, and my father rejected this because he thought that through this the Americans could find out how weak we were, and maybe it would push them to begin a war. Then in the August of 1963 … [Kennedy] offered once more to join the efforts, and at that time my father was very serious … He told me that we have to think about this and maybe accept this idea … If it would be a joint venture with the Americans, then it would be much cheaper. He thought also of the political achievement of all these things, that then they would begin to trust each other much more. After the Cuban missile crisis, his trust with President Kennedy was raised very high. He thought that it’s possible to deal with this President, he didn’t think that they could be friends, but he really wanted to avoid the war, so through this co-operation they could sojourn their thoughts on these achievements.
Is Sergei Krushchev a reliable witness? He appears to have no reason to lie; a former Soviet engineer, he has become a U.S. citizen and resident, a highly respected academic and speaker, as well as adviser to the Cold War Museum in Virginia. Whatever Khrushchev’s intentions, it certainly seems true that the offer was made and that Kennedy was serious. Draft State Department proposals were already in the works in 1961, then in a 1963 national security memorandum Kennedy instructed NASA to begin a program of cooperation with the Soviets. During a United Nations speech of around the same time, Kennedy made his hopes public:
[I]n a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity – in the field of space – there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon … Why … should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? … Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries – indeed of all the world – cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.
Kennedy’s vision never came to pass. He was killed only a month later; his dream died with him, and a nationalist space race resumed under successor Lyndon Johnson and culminated under Richard Nixon.
Trump’s Mission to the Moon
Under President Trump, the issues surrounding space exploration are poised to once again become a major part of the public discussion. Trump has been the first president since Reagan to make space a priority, increasing NASA’s funding and introducing a new military Space Force. He has also vowed to send astronauts back to the moon, as a prelude to launching the first manned trip to Mars.
Trump’s nostalgic Make America Great Again platform may look back to the Apollo era, but Trump is no dove and it seems he will be following the Johnson model for space exploration, rather than the Kennedy one. He has made it clear that U.S. control, and not cooperation, is his goal in space. “America will always be the first in space,” he said during a June speech at the White House. “We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We’ve always led … We must have American dominance in space.”
As globalists push for the integration of countries into further centralized units a la the EU (which, by the way, has its own space program) and nationalists resist, becoming increasingly touchy about “Anti-American” slights in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, is peaceful cooperation still a possibility, in space or on Earth? With U.S. space exploration at the cusp of a new renaissance under President Trump, what does First Man and the surrounding controversy say about our not too distant future?