We need another moon landing. No, I’m serious. Fifty years ago, the United States achieved something that was once thought impossible. Three men traveled through outer space, landed on the moon and returned home safely. It was an outstanding moment in human history. Despite the multiple crises and antipathy raging throughout the world, people came together to watch it in awe and wonder. The first moon landing and Apollo 11 showed us that anything was possible.
The year 1969 wasn’t much different than today. A divisive presidential election and infighting within the Democrats and Republicans contributed to a toxic political climate. The war in Vietnam was still raging, with American soldiers risking their lives on the battlefield. New cultural movements were growing, and civil society was bitterly divided over what course America should take.
Almost ironically, the U.S. space program and NASA were born out of this climate. With the Cold War and competition with the Soviet Union hanging over daily life, the launch of the first satellite Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 showed that America was falling behind in technology. Investments were made, and soon we were launching satellites and sending astronauts into space.
This led to an even more ambitious goal, sending a mission to the moon. In a speech in 1961, President Kennedy declared a man would be landed on the moon by the United States before the end of the decade. It would be no easy feat. Sending humans up into space and returning them to Earth was one matter. Traveling a half-million miles through space, successfully landing on another celestial body, and then being able to return home was quite another.
It took the best and brightest our country had to offer. Engineers, scientists, mathematicians and more were involved. Plans were developed and knowledge advanced tremendously as progress was made steadily with every test flight of new spacecraft.
When the day finally came on July 16, 1969, the launch of the massive Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 spacecraft and its crew to the moon; millions breathlessly watched in person and TV as it thunderously pushed its way into the sky. They waited and then watched in real time on television as Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lander four days later to utter those famous words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It truly was a giant leap. Nothing quite like this had ever been done before, and maybe not again since. When those men returned home four days later, they were heroes the world over. It seemed like anything was possible now. If we could make it to the Moon, what wasn’t possible?
Sadly, this optimistic spirit didn’t last. After five more successful moon landings, no human has set foot on the moon since 1972. The problems of society continue to exist and manifest. Here in 2019, far from believing anything is possible, it seems like we have really come down to earth in our expectations, pun intended.
But maybe we don’t have to resign ourselves to a pessimistic state of affairs. As President Nixon said in his speech to the Apollo astronauts on the moon, “Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world.” He then said “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one…”
When Nixon talked about the heavens, he was talking about space, but to me it also means something greater. It is the heavens of possibility that were opened for humankind after such an achievement of purpose. Apollo 11 and the moon landing showed through the power of determination and working together, we can solve any problem we put our collective efforts toward solving. That’s a lesson we could especially take note of today.