Robert Frosch, a former NASA Administrator who is now a scholar and teacher at HarvardUniversity, sent the following respo...
was a very canny and careful financial and management guy, with no technical background, butlikely to take a broad view of...
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The Cold War and the Moon Landing

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Robert Frosch, a former NASA Administrator who is now a scholar and teacher at Harvard University, sent the following response (links are added for context) to a question posed to Dot Earth blogger Andy Revkin by his 14-year-old son, Jack.

After flipping through “Paper Astronaut: The Paper Spacecraft Mission Manual,” Jack asked: “Would we have gone to the Moon if there hadn’t been a cold war?” (From 8/25 post on the passing of Astronaut Neil Armstrong)

Related post: Dot Earth: The Cold War Push Behind Neil Armstrong's 'One Small Step' http://nyti.ms/U2gmnL

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The Cold War and the Moon Landing

  1. 1. Robert Frosch, a former NASA Administrator who is now a scholar and teacher at HarvardUniversity, sent the following response (links are added for context) to a question posed to DotEarth blogger Andy Revkin by his 14-year-old son, Jack.After flipping through “Paper Astronaut: The Paper Spacecraft Mission Manual,” Jack asked:“Would we have gone to the Moon if there hadn’t been a cold war?” (From 8/25 post on thepassing of Astronaut Neil Armstrong)I thought it sensible to do a little thinking over the weekend before I tried to answer your son’svery interesting question.I’m skeptical of the possibility of tying a particular event or sequence in history to a definitecause. History seems to me so contingent, chaotic, and noisy that it is probably not true that evenwhen one sees a cause that it means much. It appears that evolution is the same: there are bigpieces of chance and chaos in the system.Keeping that in mind, I do think the cold war competition was a very important push to havegoing-to-the-Moon happen. However, it is also important to think about the Werner von Brauneffect, along with the other imported Germans, and the push for ballistic missiles, as a logicalweapons follow-on to the von Braun work during World War II. In addition, there is the effect ofthe immediately previous era of science fiction, including the movie “Destination Moon,” whichmore or less followed the plot of Robert Heinlein’s rather Ayn Rand-ish novel “The Man WhoSold the Moon.” (I was the right age to have been an avid reader of that kind of physics- andengineering-based science fiction, which was popular at the time, possibly because of the WorldWar II developments in science and technology.)It was strongly rumored that Jerome Wiesner of M.I.T., who was Kennedy’s science adviser atthe time, was opposed to the whole Moon business, because it was (only?) engineering, notscience.I suppose my point is that there were a lot of potentiating pieces in place, many of them familiarto the general public, particularly the youngish public. Put these all together with a young, newpresident looking for something to give the country a push, at a time of obvious externalcompetition, and they spell: Moon. I’m not sure the idea would have gone anywhere if the otherpieces had not been in place, or if the opposition had been somewhat stronger.Bottom line: I think the Cold War competition and Sputnik came together with the other piecesthat were in place to push possibility into reality. The Cold War competition was a catalyst, butperhaps another catalyst might have come along.The original NASA was ARPA, which was set up in the Department of Defense as a response toSputnik (as I was told the history when I was in ARPA). It was later decided that a space effortshould be civil, and not tied directly to military interests.I met and talked with Jim Webb during my nomination period for Administrator of NASA. He
  2. 2. was a very canny and careful financial and management guy, with no technical background, butlikely to take a broad view of anything he took on. As far as I can tell, Webb’s response to hisown lack of technological knowledge was to link up with Bob Seamans, and hire him. I suspectWebb was advising the president that any Moon push should be part of a move to learn aboutand use space possibilities in a broader way.The Space Act of 1958, as originally written, certainly took a broad view, and set out thecomplete menu for NASA in a very succinct way. I think that was the doing of Hugh Dryden (ofNACA), or President Eisenhower’s Science Advisor at the time, James Killian of M.I.T., but Idon’t really know the history, and am certainly fuzzy on the details. I suppose there is an officialNASA history, and many details must be available through the NASA history office, but I nevergot around to looking at that in detail. When I started with NASA, I just made it my business toknow the Space Act of 1958 -- a remarkable document.One other piece: From my own observation when I came to ARPA in the fall of 1963, VicePresident Lyndon Johnson had taken up the role of spokesman for space, but I don’t knowwhether that was cause or consequence. The biographies probably say.-- Bob Frosch, 8/27/2012

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