This is a re-post of an article that I wrote last year. I do it today in memory of Neil Armstrong who died at the age of 82 today. I will have an article about him posted later today.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the stuff that dreams are made of the stuff that inspires a generation. A tiny and fragile Lunar Module, the Eagle piloted by Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Bud Aldrin landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Within hours the two men had made the first walk on the Moon. Armstrong made the statement “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In orbit above the Moon Astronaut Michael Collins piloted the Command Module Columbia. It was the stuff that legends are made of and help point humankind to higher and nobler goals.
Shortly after he became President, John F. Kennedy promised to have a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. His comments supporting the Apollo mission before a joint session of Congress are quite remarkable especially in light of the state of the technology available at the time.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
The United States wholeheartedly threw itself into the race for the Moon and though Kennedy, struck dead by an assassin’s bullet nearly six years prior did not live to celebrate the occasion it was something that in a time of war and deep political division united the Nation. It did not matter if one was a conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat the Space Program and in particular the Apollo missions made us glad to be Americans. In the midst of trying times marked by racism and riots, political assassinations, anti-war protests and social unrest.
It was an amazing event which could have ended in disaster but instead helped us as a nation to aspire to higher and nobler goals. The landing on the Moon inspired many to study the sciences and Astronaut camps attended by children furthered that desire. The invention, innovation and ingenuity sparked by the program helped birth more invention many times providing the basis for devices that are ubiquitous today but unthinkable except possibly to the writers of Star Trek then.
We dreamed and aspired to great things. We were Americans then. Now we have become a collection of deeply divided hatred filled special interests. The last Space Shuttle mission that of the Atlantis will end tomorrow and no one knows what will follow. But does it matter?
It probably doesn’t matter anymore because we have stopped dreaming or envisioning a hopeful future. The Moon, Mars and beyond, forget that we need to sacrifice, well everyone but the people that put us in the mess we are in.
What does a space program matter when we are so divided against ourselves?
Our politician’s pundits and preachers of all political leanings and persuasions drive that poisonous wedge deeper every day and many willingly indulge in the “us against them” mentality promoted by those that beg us to listen to the “three hours a day every day.”
That Unholy Trinity of politicians, pundits and preachers seems so bent promoting their ideologies and theologies that they forget that they all have a responsibility to a nation that is greater than their respective faction, special interest and even religious views. Now we have politicians signing statements written by special interests groups and there are an ever growing number of them, as if they were the Constitution, binding them and their fealty to unelected and unaccountable power brokers who have only their ideology to promote. To see politicians shamelessly entering into such pacts to win a nomination or primary makes me wonder what they will do if they are elected to the offices that they aspire.
Back in 1969 the country was a mess, but when the Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility we were Americans again. We took a moment and believed again and we achieved again. Unfortunately I don’t see anything at the present that will make us so again at least in the near future. I fear for our country. Maybe it’s just my PTSD “Mad Cow” getting to me; maybe it is the fact that as a historian and theologian I know where the path we are traveling ends.