Roger Launius was 15 on the night of July 21, 1969, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. In the memory of this former chief historian of NASA, as in millions of other Americans, the memory is indelible. “It was unreal, these images of men floating like ghosts on the Moon. I remember feeling a mixture of joy and pride, he says. Especially when we were in the middle of the Vietnam War. I had lost friends in the conflict… This first step on the Moon gave me some faith in the United States. »
More than half a century after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon, the conquest of the star remains etched in the collective memory of Americans. Space exploration even continues to inspire new generations, too young to have known the time of Apollo 11. According to a Pew Research Center survey published in 2018, as the first step on the Moon approaches 50 years, 70% of millennials believe “important” that the United States remains the leaders in the conquest of space. In another survey conducted by CBS in 2019, 73% of Americans say their country’s space programs are a source of pride for them and help strengthen their patriotism.
A political dimension
“There is a phrase that we use a lot in the US to give ourselves courage when we face a huge challenge: ‘If we could put a man on the moon, we can overcome anything’. notes Roger Launius. It is a reference that was used, for example, during the Covid-19 crisis. » In the collective memory“the moon landing constantly reminds Americans that anything is possible if they choose to do it”.
In a country in the midst of an identity and democratic crisis, and whose world hegemony is threatened, the Americans’ return to the Moon comes at the right time. For the Biden administration, the upcoming launch of Artemis could be a way to inject a breath of fresh air“optimism about the future”, says Casey Dreier, adviser to the Planetary Society, an association that promotes space exploration based in Pasadena (California).
The conquest of the moon has always had a political dimension in the United States. By sending the crew of Apollo 11 to the Moon in 1969 in the midst of the Cold War, the country intended to fulfill the goal set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961: to conquer the Moon by the end of the decade to establish US supremacy over the Soviet enemy, who had taken the lead in space. Once this goal was achieved, the very high cost of lunar exploration from the 1970s would deter successive governments from investing in new missions.
Strengthen alliances with Europe, Japan and Australia
Until 2004, Republican President George W. Bush decided to return astronauts to the Moon: the “Constellation” project aimed to build bases on the star to prepare the first manned mission to Mars. Buried in 2010 by the Obama administration, which saw it as an economic abyss, the project finally rose from its ashes under Trump in 2017. Renamed “Artemis,” it was shelved by Democrat Joe Biden shortly after his arrival at the White House. “This is the first time a space mission to put men on the moon has survived a change of administration since the transition from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon in 1969.” notes Casey Dreier.
For the expert, the current political issues are different from those from the Cold War era. “The goal for the Americans today is above all to strengthen their alliances with States that share the same ideals as the countries in Europe, Japan or Australia that signed the Artemis agreements. It’s about building a peaceful cooperative enterprise dedicated to continuous space exploration rather than “winning” a one-off battle against an enemy country. »