Bill Gates recently had a phone call with President-elect Donald Trump. And Gates was impressed. He even compared Trump to John F. Kennedy, explaining that JFK got the country to support the Apollo space program. According to Gates, Trump will get people excited about his initiatives. One of the many problems with Gates’ argument? Kennedy didn’t actually succeed at getting the majority of Americans to support Apollo.
I’ve written about this before at length. But the short version is that our collective memory about the Apollo space program is really warped. If you ask someone today how much public support the space program had in the 1960s, most people would probably guess 80 or 90 percent. In reality, support for the program swung between 35 and 45 percent throughout the entirety of the 1960s. The one time it got above 50 percent? The months surrounding the first moon landing in July of 1969.
“In the same way President Kennedy talked about the space mission and got the country behind that,” Gates told CNBC today, “I think whether it’s education or stopping epidemics... [or] in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that [Trump’s] administration [is] going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation.”
So whether you agree with Bill Gates and his assessment of Trump or not, it’s important to remember that funding for the Apollo program was opposed by the majority of Americans. Why then do we have this bizarre memory of the program? You can blame the baby boomers like Gates.
The baby boomers were kids during the Apollo space program. And when you’re a kid you don’t have much to worry about in the way of paying the bills or public policy. You certainly don’t have fully formed political ideas about, say, ways that government funds can be better used than blasting people into space.
But that was precisely what happened. Baby boomers, as children of the 1960s, just remember the speeches on TV and watching the moon landing. They don’t remember that the majority of Americans (American adults, as those are the people who get polled) thought that the Apollo space program was a waste of money.
Roger Launius, chief historian at NASA, put it best in a 2005 paper: “While there may be many myths about Apollo and spaceflight, the principal one is the story of a resolute nation moving outward into the unknown beyond Earth.”
We were not a resolute nation moving outward together. We were, as we always have been, a very fractured nation moving in many different directions at once. But the person steering the ship usually gets his way. And like it or not, Trump is about to steer our ship.