As we do each year, my family slouched in lawn chairs at a Fourth of July celebration and gawked at fireworks as they burst against a humid summer sky. The requisite live music had blared its way to an end only moments before dark, and the scent of popcorn and smoke from children’s sparklers hung in the air like old memories.
Although a breeze had picked up and it was cooling a bit after a long hot day, my thoughts turned to the moon — just a slim waxing crescent — that never showed itself, tucked behind clouds that promised more rain by morning.
Dozens of past Independence Day remembrances have undoubtedly run together for most of us, but I doubt few of our generation have forgotten the night we watched Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface; it was 50 years ago today.
Like millions of other families, ours circled the television set and watched and listened for hours in rapt attention at fuzzy black and white images and garbled transmissions between Mission Control and Apollo 11’s crew. Included among the scenes was the critical split that Eagle made from Columbia before its descent; then the edgy touchdown it made in The Sea of Tranquility; and then Armstrong clambering down a narrow ladder to leave a footprint for the ages in the gray dust. All the while, Walter Cronkite’s baritone commentary gave us a sense that absolutely nothing could go wrong, although, of course, it could have.
I believe we need a national goal — a worldwide goal — similar to the one accomplished in the days of what historian Douglas Brinkley has called the “American Moonshot,” which also happens to be the name of his current bestselling book. It may be hard to believe, but even in their envy and fear of our technological power, many in the Soviet Union, and even more around the world, were rooting for Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Armstrong as they took their flight toward making that “giant leap for mankind.”
There are plenty of alarms ringing in the news that suggest American ingenuity is dying, that we are being passed by as we languish in a consumptive idle, that “Made in the USA” means less than it used to, that our work ethic has slipped. One of the most convincing pieces is already five years old: Michael Hanlon’s “What Happened to Innovation,” published in “Aeon” in December 2014.
He wrote: “…there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation — I’ll call it the Golden Quarter — ran from approximately 1945 to 1971.”
I don’t totally agree with those sentiments, but I have to admit that I have bought some of it, particularly as I wait for the next “service representative,” or stand in line to return something shoddily made, or read yet another explanation as to why I am paying more and getting less.
Are we, however, just one great goal away from regaining our technological and competitive edge, if, indeed, we ever gave it up? Brinkley’s book — all 526 pages of it — is subtitled, “John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.” I have yet to finish, but had I stopped reading just after the author’s impressive preface, I couldn’t have been inspired much more.
Most of what Brinkley writes in those first 10 pages is dedicated to Kennedy’s crucial vision for putting a man into space, and, even though he never lived to see it, a man on the moon. JFK’s romantic sense of adventure and natural buoyancy gave us good reason in those days — despite an astronomical cost in today’s dollars of over $180 billion — to want to strive to reach out to the moon. Without big ideas we stagnate, stand still; he understood that, and set the tone for a new era in this country — in education, in science, and in confidence — as he spoke at Rice University about a year before he was slain in Dallas.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people,” he said.
Today, despite lessons of the past — specifically, all the good that was gleaned through our space program — we are reticent to spend money to explore the cosmos, indeed to even agree that our blue marble of a planet, itself, needs dire attention. Our investment in the frontiers of space has been returned times over, not only in the convenient and everyday technology we hold in our hands or watch on big screens, but in life-saving medical imagery and weather forecasting, and much, much more. As promised, the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo programs have “been used for the progress of all people.”
For me to suggest that Kennedy was no “Cold Warrior,” that he didn’t understand the military necessity of gaining superiority in space over the Soviets, would be naïve. He knew what was at stake, but not long before he died, he also spoke of finding a ceiling for the development of military hardware for the sake of our children.
“What kind of a peace do we seek?” he asked in a commencement address at American University in June 1963. “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
The Fourth of July has come and gone—our 243rd year of independence—and we have a long list of “moonshots” from which we can choose. Real leadership, tinged with eloquence and idealism, is important; it paves the way for big things to come.