Returning to the moon to gain soft political power

Returning to the moon to gain soft political power
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President John F. Kennedy cast the Apollo program and putting a man on the moon as a battle in the Cold War then raging between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In an address to Congress Kennedy proposed the first moon landing — with Yuri Gagarin’s first orbital flight still resonating — as a critical tool in the “battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.” Later, Kennedy went on to characterize the reason for landing on the moon because, “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind.”

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He reasoned that if an American were to walk on the moon first, the very act would be proof that the American system of freedom and tolerance was superior to Soviet tyranny. The world community would take note and choose accordingly which side to support. The moon race was an example of what foreign policy experts call “soft political power” which is used to persuade rather than force other countries to behave according to American interests.

The strategy succeeded brilliantly, beyond what Kennedy and his advisors imagined, not to mention some of the commentariat, which groused about “all that money” being spent on space “stunts” while social needs pressed for attention. A dozen or so years later, President Ronald Reagan made another speech, proposing that American technological prowess be marshaled again to create a space-based defensive system to make the Soviet Union’s nuclear-tipped ICBMs “impotent and obsolete.”

The Strategic Defense Initiative was derided by Reagan’s political opponents and some self-styled experts as “Star Wars.” The Soviet leadership did not deride Reagan’s missile defense proposal. The Americans, they remembered, beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Might they pull off a missile defense system? The frantic Soviet effort to counteract SDI contributed measurably to the victory of the American-led alliance in the Cold War. Thus, all that money spent on landing a man on the moon led to incalculable and unexpected dividends.

Fast forward to the present day, and we see Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBolton presses Iran to withdraw forces from Syria, areas of conflict EXCLUSIVE: Trump accuses Biden of lying about Obama's lack of endorsement Leaked Trump transition vetting documents show numerous officials with 'red flags': Axios MORE addressing the National Space Council, announcing that the date of the next moon landing would be brought forward to 2024. “Now, make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher."

“Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation,” he added.

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Just as with Kennedy’s moon landing goal and Reagan’s SDI, Pence’s announcement was met with doubt and derision. The chair of the House Science Committee Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) stated, “The simple truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the Moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear.”

Johnson is incorrect. If China is the first country back to the moon in this century, it will not matter that America landed a man on the moon 50 years ago. The world will see that the country that landed there no longer exists and that the future belongs to China, with its science fiction, dystopian social credit system and its imperialist ambitions. Thus, Pence was right to throw down a new challenge, to confirm the verdict of Apollo, that the United States and her allies own the future and not the latest tyranny to trouble the peace of the world.

Mark R. 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.”