July 12, 2019 12:00 p.m.
Later this month, we’ll celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldren’s walk on the moon (with another astronaut, Michael Collins, remaining in the command module above the moon). That first journey and walk on the moon is often cited as the most significant technological achievement of all time. The accomplishment truly is something to celebrate.
As a young child (age 5) at the time, I do not recall any first-hand memories of the days surrounding the launch of Apollo 11, the landing on the moon, and the safe return to Earth. Hindsight now provides an appropriate perspective.
The moon mission gauntlet had been thrown down by President Kennedy, one month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin was the first person to fly in space, vaulting the Soviet Union to the lead in the “Space Race.” Kennedy, in a speech to Congress, stated “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” (May 25, 1961).
He reiterated the goal in another speech the following year: “But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? …We choose to go to the Moon. 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 we intend to win” (Sep 12, 1962). [I find it incredible that with his skills as a great orator, I can still easily hear Kennedy’s voice saying those words- an era of speeches, not sound bites, long past]. Kennedy lived for little over two years after that challenge, but progress continued to make good on the goal.
Outside the scope of the moon mission, other significant events were consuming national and international attention throughout the 1960s: the Cold War was heating up, the Vietnam War was hot, racial relations in several big cities were explosive. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was plagued with its own troubles in the Space Race, culminating with the deaths of three Apollo 1 astronauts (Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White II, Roger Chaffee) in a launch pad fire in January, 1967. As the tumultuous decade drew to a close, it seemed as if the nation was thirsting for a success.
I find it inspiring to watch the news clips of the Apollo 11 mission- the flickering black and white picture steadied by the resonance of Walter Cronkite. It was a triumphant achievement when the world was roiled by failures. The nation had a new hero in Neil Armstrong and I expect many children, including me, dreamed of being an astronaut.
Our appetite for space was whetted and more missions to the moon were planned. The ignorance of the dangers of rocket flight were perhaps best summarized in the movie “Apollo 13,” only two missions after the iconic Apollo 11: one of the astronaut’s family commented on the lack of television coverage of the Apollo 13 launch because it was now routine to go to the moon.
The interest in space was renewed with the development of the space shuttle. Again, the great successes are often punctuated with incredible failures: I think most everyone can still remember the tragic loss of the Challenger at launch (not quite so vivid perhaps is the loss of the Columbia upon re-entry).
When the cessation of the space shuttle program was announced, I was still fascinated enough to want to see a launch. In November, 2009, I brought my family to Cape Canaveral and watched the launch of Atlantis- several hours of anticipation and waiting, highlighted by less than two minutes of technological wonder and awe. Who follows space missions anymore?
Perhaps we can use this great American moment to set a new national goal. What would be a challenge for our nation, a national of immense talents and resources, for the coming decade? Medical and social challenges abound, but what will inspire us collectively? What would be your goal? What “small step” can you take toward that goal?
We have a “little” daily challenges here in Fernandina Beach than truly pale in comparison to other issues on a larger scale. We seem to often forget that. When we celebrate the achievement of Apollo 11, perhaps we can think bigger.