Why the moon? Because, Kennedy said, “no single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind.”
Kennedy was undoubtedly correct in that assessment. Furthering knowledge and understanding about the universe by increments is not nearly as inspiring a goal or as strong a competitive political masterstroke as “land a man on the moon, in this decade, and return him safely to earth.” A moon mission has imagination, a clear victory point—and, as retired astronaut Story Musgrave likes to point out, all the elements of great project management: a clear focus, clear requirements, a clear goal, and a clear timeline in which to accomplish that goal.
The eight-year Apollo effort leading to the moon landing also sparked the development of all kinds of new technology: from rockets to life-support systems, from lightweight materials to protective coatings, and to really cool pens that wrote in zero gravity. It also undoubtedly inspired many school children in the 1960s to pursue engineering, in the hopes of becoming part of the grand space adventure when they grew up.
But while the moon landing was unquestionably inspirational—I still remember racing home from a camping trip to watch it on TV—and a decisive public-relations victory for the U.S. in its “space war” with the Soviet Union, it came at a price.
Certainly the human space flight program, and the International Space Station, have more than a few critics. And the money and focus on the human spaceflight side of NASA have deflected huge amounts of money and brainpower away from other research efforts. The question is … could the situation have been different?