What Is the Space Program Good For?

In 1968, on the eve of the first Apollo launch, rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun gave his answer.

Wernher von Braun (center, standing), George Mueller (to his right) and other members of the NASA team watch an Apollo test flight in 1964. (NASA)
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We look back on the Apollo era today and think that all Americans were united in the quest to reach the moon. But it wasn’t necessarily so.

On October 10, 1968, the eve of the first crewed Apollo launch, rocket pioneer and NASA executive Wernher von Braun addressed a group of honorees and their families at a Manned Flight Awareness program dinner at the Kennedy Space Center.  The MFA program, launched two years earlier as a recognition and quality assurance program, had assumed even greater importance in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire that took the lives of three astronauts in January 1967.

Following that tragedy, critics in Washington and in the media had sharpened their attacks over the mounting cost and risks associated with spaceflight, even as NASA regrouped and prepared to return to flight.

At the MFA dinner the night before Wally Schirra and his Apollo 7 crew became the first astronauts launched into space in nearly two years, George Mueller, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight, underscored the risks of spaceflight, pointing out that a typical Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft have about 15 million individual piece-parts. Even with a 99.99% reliability rate, that would still mean 1,500 failures per flight. “With that sobering thought,” Mueller said, “I’d like to point out that we’ve now flown two Saturn Vs, and have had two failures. That is not too bad for a record. That means we must be about 99.99964% reliable. That represents a real contribution of your skills and talents to our program.”

It was in this context that von Braun addressed the crowd.  He laid out what he viewed as the ultimate benefit of the NASA space program—the development of a culture of perfection and precision in the U.S. industrial and technological base. Von Braun, Mueller, and the other speakers that evening believed this culture would have major implications for American industry and society in the future, and that the benefits of space exploration would far outweigh any cost.

Von Braun began:

I spent a little bit of time today with the press…when the question came about, “What is all this good for? Why do we have a space program to begin with? What does it do to the country? Why do we have to go into outer space and race to the moon, while we have a war going on in Vietnam, and while there are riots in the cities and all kinds of other problems?” I hammered one point home with them, and I hope it made a mark. The space program today has become the cutting edge of technological progress.  It is the demanding requirements that NASA imposes on industry that keeps our industry sharp. It enables us to do things that have never been done before.

Click below to hear von Braun’s full speech.

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About Richard Jurek

Richard Jurek is co-author of Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (MIT Press, 2014).

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