Debating the Apollo 11 Moon Landing

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“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

As NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of the Moon in July 1969, his words sought to include all of humanity in the historic event. Indeed, people all around the world expressed pride in the success of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, which was all the more impressive considering how quickly it had been achieved.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress in a speech titled, “Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs.” In that speech, he proclaimed, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Less than a decade later, the United States had achieved mission success.

In reality, the Apollo Program’s accelerated pace was due less to the passion for discovery and more due to the “Space Race” between the United States and its superpower adversary at that time, the communist Soviet Union. Since the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, the U.S. had lagged behind its Soviet competitors in exploratory achievements in space. There was concern among national leaders and the American public that continued Soviet success would diminish American prestige internationally, and potentially give the Soviets an advantage in possible future military maneuvers in space.

On the geopolitical stage, mission success was a triumph for the United States government against the Soviet Union. The U.S. had achieved a powerfully symbolic and strategic victory. But that triumph had come with a huge price tag, and many Americans felt the “Space Race” had diverted precious financial resources away from serious domestic needs in the United States.

“A rat done bit my sister Nell, with whitey on the moon.”

The cost of the Apollo program was enormous, totaling over $25 billion (over $150 billion in 2019 dollars) when the last mission took place in 1972, and public support for the program had never been robust. In fact, apart from the Apollo 11 mission in the last days of July 1969, the Apollo program had not garnered wide support in numerous polls conducted between 1965 and 1975. Specifically, a substantial number of Americans, including a majority of minority groups and communities of color, expressed that the nation had more important priorities than space exploration throughout the program’s entire history.

Poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s recording “Whitey on the Moon” channeled the resentment and disillusionment of many Americans towards the Apollo program. The song’s refrain, “A rat done bit my sister Nell, with whitey on the moon,” referenced the rejected 1967 congressional legislation that would have addressed lingering quality of life issues for residents in public housing who were experiencing chronic rodent problems. Furthermore, the refrain succinctly supplied a contrasting narrative to the celebrations surrounding the Apollo 11 moon landing mission.

In this lesson, students will watch clips from CNN’s Soundtracks to identify historic details of NASA’s Apollo program. Students will then identify poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s critical view of the Apollo program through his song, “Whitey On The Moon” and participate in a structured academic controversy activity to debate the controversy of the program.

Lesson Plan Resources