Are we ready for today’s big idea?

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Lots of big events happened at our house on the south side of St. Cloud in the summer of 1969.

We bought our first color TV, my first year of high school loomed and I learned to drive (behind the wheel of a huge 1968 Chevrolet that barely fit on the old 10th Street Bridge).

And oh yes, American astronauts landed on the moon.

On July 20, a humid Sunday night 50 years ago, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong climbed down a ladder to the lunar surface while the world watched the fuzzy black-and-white television images.

This summer we remember key anniversaries of two of the most significant events of the 20th century.

In June, Americans and our World War II allies honored the D-Day veterans who invaded France 75 years ago.

On D-Day, the survival of the western democracies was at stake. Sending astronauts to the moon was a more symbolic challenge to prove America’s technical and entrepreneurial superiority over the Soviet Union. But both demanded vision, inspirational leadership and involved tremendous risk.

Just weeks after NASA launched Alan Shepard on America’s first manned flight, President Kennedy proposed that the U.S. land on the moon by the end of the 1960s. An audacious idea challenged the country’s scientists and technical companies. The big idea inspired Americans to reach for a history-changing achievement.

The only problem, we didn’t know how to do it. None of the machines to get to the moon had been built or tested.

Failure to achieve the goal would have embarrassed the country, especially if the Soviets reached the moon first. We’ve heard the quote from NASA’s leaders many times: “Failure was not on option.”

When Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill planned D-Day, failure was definitely a possibility and with catastrophic consequences. In his message to the troops, Eisenhower wrote: “We will accept nothing less than full victory!”

These two very different historic events share common characteristics: bold vision, teamwork at all levels and big risks.

With great sacrifice and bravery, D-Day succeeded. With trusted leadership, the efforts of hundreds of thousands of Americans and technical excellence, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.

Could Americans meet those historic challenges today? Given a life-or-death mission or a visionary goal, what would be the result?

Who would be today’s Eisenhower, Roosevelt or Kennedy?

In a September 1962 speech, Kennedy said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

What leader would dare to speak similar words today?

Kennedy and Eisenhower envisioned success, but success was not guaranteed. Eisenhower wrote a message in case the invasion failed and he was ready to take the blame.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

In this time and place, it’s time for visionary leadership to turn back climate change. The consequences of failure or inaction are just as great as on D-Day. The technology needed to stop global warming is just as experimental as the path to the moon was in 1961.

In 50 or 75 years, Americans should look back on the summer of 2019 as a time when American leadership set a visionary and essential goal and challenged the country to meet it.

Author: Mike Knaak

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