Greg Ross interviews Gerard J. DeGroot, author of Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest, in American Scientist:
To Americans in the 1960s, putting a man on the Moon was a noble, even romantic challenge. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind,” President Kennedy told Congress, “or more important in the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
But in re-examining the Apollo project, historian Gerard J. DeGroot finds it largely an empty dream. In Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (New York University Press), he argues that the Moon race was essentially just a new front in the Cold War, “an immensely expensive distraction of little scientific or cultural worth.”
In announcing the Apollo project, Kennedy referred to moving with what he called “the full speed of freedom.” Do you think he saw it chiefly as a scientific endeavor, or really as a symbolic contest of ideologies?
I think very definitely the latter. It’s very difficult for some people even still, given Kennedy’s mystique, to accept that he wasn’t quite the person we thought he was. I think the really telling bit comes in a conversation that he has with the NASA administrator James Webb, in which he says, “I don’t really care about the moon. I know it’s important; I know there are people who really want to go there, but I just want to beat the Russians.” So it really comes down to that. It is purely a symbol of American supremacy in the Cold War. Because the Cold War didn’t provide real wars, this is in a sense a sort of surrogate war, and almost seemingly chosen with the same sort of cavalier attitude that, say, a Civil War general might choose a battlefield: “Well, we’re here, let’s fight right here.”