Was science really the driving force behind the Apollo program?

Or was the "race to the moon" the primary reason and the science objectives were put together as a secondary step?

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure that anyone ever claimed that it was "driven by science". It was explicitly a response to Soviet Union putting out the first satellite into orbit, and then the first human. In a climate of cold war between two competing political systems it could not have been left unanswered for ideological reasons. But boost to science provided by mobilization of resources and new experience was certainly a lucky side effect. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jun 9, 2015 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Conifold and then there's the fact that the federal government's interest in funding NASA virtually collapsed alongside the Soviet Union... $\endgroup$
    – David H
    Jun 10, 2015 at 4:23

2 Answers 2


The driving force behind the Apollo program was leadership in space over the Soviet Union. Kennedy asked Vice President Johnson to investigate whether "we have a chance of beating the Soviets by placing a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man. Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?"

Source: John F. Kennedy, Memorandum for Vice President, 20 April 1961

The decision to go to the Moon was political, beating the Soviets. NASA recommended that Kennedy pursue the manned mission to the Moon because of a perceived Soviet Union primacy over the US in terms of large rocket technology. A target after the mid 1960s was needed to give the US a chance at catching up with and surpassing the Soviet Union.

Science was an add-on, only done after the decision was made to go to the Moon.


It isn't entirely clear that the cynical view that science was just tacked onto a political project is correct. The whole issue of science in the Apollo program is discussed very well indeed in "Where no man has gone before" by William David Compton, a serious historian who looked into this question in detail. To really answer the question, you have to say who's driving force. If you're talking about JFK, he had one motivation. If you're talking about the members of congress, they had other motivations. If you're talking about the engineers at NASA, they had other motivations. And then there were the astronauts and the scientists who participated in the design of experiments, and then the various top scientific bodies in the USA. And of course there were also the taxpayers who paid for it.

There was in fact a constant to-and-fro between NASA and the scientists. NASA leadership was very insistent that the absolute maximum of science must come out of the project. There were very intensive studies to determine the best sites on the Moon and the best equipment to take with them in order to answer the maximum number of scientific questions. There was also a clear and explicit statement from NASA that engineering came first until the first landing was achieved. After that, the objectives were to be scientific. If the goal had been only political, they would have stopped after the first landing! But multiple landings had always been planned from the very beginning.


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