How the flight of Apollo 11 won the Cold War

How the flight of Apollo 11 won the Cold War

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped down the ladder of the lunar module and became the first human beings to set foot on the moon. The first moon walk not only constituted an enormous, peacetime feat of science and technology, but unarguably a victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

In fact, it can be argued that the flight of Apollo 11 and the subsequent expeditions to the moon set the stage for the final victory in the Cold War 20 years later.


Certainly, President John F. Kennedy articulated the moon program in Cold War terms when he proposed it just over eight years previously.  Subsequently, Kennedy employed the image of space as a new frontier, to be explored as a way for America to live up to its pioneering spirit in his later speech at Rice University. However, most understood that the primary motive for the moon landing was to humble the Soviets into the lunar dust.


How shaken were the Soviets at losing the moon race? To answer that we have to fast forward to another president and another speech, delivered on March 23, 1983. President Ronald Reagan proposed to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) would rely on multilayered space-based weapons, some of them using lasers, to stop Soviet ICBMs from reaching their targets. Such a system would remove the spectre of thermonuclear war from human civilization.

Reagan’s political opponents were quick to ridicule SDI, terming it “Star Wars.” Of course, naming the project after a popular movie backfired to a certain extent. It infused the idea of SDI with the heroics of the characters of the movie doing battle against another evil empire.

The Soviet leadership, by contrast, took SDI very seriously. The Kremlin poured an enormous amount of rubles into an effort to overcome Reagan’s proposed missile defense system, including improvements to Soviet offensive rockets.

Why would the Soviets make such an endeavor if a considerable number of politicians and academic experts in the West thought that a space-based missile defense system was impossible? Paul Spudis, Ph.D, a lunar geologist, one of the greatest experts in the use of the moon’s resources to facilitate space flight, who frequently comments on space policy, explained almost 20 years ago: 

“Clearly, the Soviet Union was convinced the SDI would work and that we would achieve exactly what we set out to do.  Here is Apollo’s legacy:  Any technological challenge America undertakes, it can accomplish.  The reason this legacy had currency was the success of Apollo.  We had attempted and successfully achieved a technical goal — one so difficult and demanding, that it made virtually any similar goal seem equally achievable.  Moreover, this was a goal that the Soviets themselves had attempted and failed.  They reasoned that getting into a decade-long competition with America on SDI would similarly end in an American victory and would be a race that would bankrupt and destroy their system, as indeed, it did.”

The strain on the Soviet economy from its effort to overcome SDI soon became apparent. When Mikhail Gorbachev took power two years after Reagan’s SDI speech, he attempted to reform the communist system. He also attempted to induce the American president to trade away SDI in exchange for total nuclear disarmament at the Reykjavík Summit in October 1986.

Reagan, a canny negotiator dating back to his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild, turned the deal down, much to the consternation of much of the media.

However, Reagan knew that the United States had the advantage. He pushed through further arms reduction agreements in the waning days of his administration.

Less than a year after Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Empire, once the terror of the world, began to unravel. The Hammer and Sickle flag was lowered for the last time two years later as the Soviet Union broke apart into a collection of newly-independent nations. As Russia found that it had been stripped of super-power status, its ability to threaten the world was greatly diminished.

All because of that small step on the lunar surface just under half a century ago.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”