Last Sunday evening, an appropriately stellar if graying group of accomplished businessmen, civic leaders, physicians and attorneys gathered privately in a tree-circled meadow near Lake Waco beneath a majestic full moon to discuss Putinism and its spread across America and the globe. But before debate could commence, the beaming white orb overhead demanded proper tribute, if only because of what happened there almost 50 years ago that evening. One by one, each earthling assembled recalled where he was when the lunar module Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility and astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot in gray moon dust.

Some memories proved hazy, mixing up the dramatic landing with Armstrong’s stepping onto the moon hours later. Still, a few offered vividly telling moments. One recalled witnessing, in person, the Apollo 11 launch; half of Congress was present, many radiating all-American optimism, unaware the astronauts had privately given themselves no better than a 50-50 chance of mission success. Another recollection: Stationed in Berlin while in the Army, 26-year-old William McKinney of Waco hoped that, amidst everything from protests across America over the Vietnam War to inner-city riots over racial strife, the landing of the lunar module and man’s stepping onto the moon might somehow inspire more confidence in America by the rest of the world. Then, as now, the United States did not find favor everywhere.

“A friend of mine was in a German bar after the moon landing,” McKinney told me. “He had purchased an Apollo 11 patch. He said a German was telling him America was no longer a great nation. Without saying anything, he pulled the patch from his pocket and held it for the German to see. Silence.

Gene Kranz, 85, the Apollo 11 flight director known for his vest and crew-cut as much as his commanding presence over Mission Control, has said as much about the American pride and ideals involved: “I believed in the space race. I wanted to beat the Russians. Space was not just something romantic to me. It was the battleground with the Soviet Union at that time. And to put it bluntly, it was the battle for the minds and the hearts of the free world.” CBS News journalist Eric Sevareid, who as part of Edward R. Murrow’s famous circle covered the fall of Paris and the Battle of Britain during World War II, saw the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon in even broader, more imaginative terms: “This is just the beginning perhaps of a new stage in the evolution of the species, something comparable to the crawling of the first amphibious creature out of the primeval swamp onto dry land.”

Certainly, the Waco News-Tribune staff saw the event as worthy of almost front-to-back coverage in its July 21, 1969, edition. The daily newspaper took Central Texans’ minds off a summer heatwave — the weather bureau noted that July 20, 1969, marked the 24th straight day that temperatures had climbed to 100 degrees or more in Waco. The moon landing also booted the saga of Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy’s deadly July 18 mishap on the Chappaquiddick bridge onto Page 3.

Associated Press coverage dominated Page One, including the fact prayers had been offered up in churches throughout the nation. Moon fever struck many, the AP suggested: “The warden of San Quentin Prison announced the TV could run past the usual 11 p.m. curfew for 1,100 prisoners in two honor blocks. Disneyland at Anaheim, California, reported unusually good business for its ‘Flight to the Moon’ ride. In Nashville, Tenn., Criminal Court Judge Allen R. Cornelius ordered a color TV set brought to a courtroom so a murder trial jury of 10 men, two women and two male alternates could watch the moon events. Disc jockeys at radio station WCNR in Bloomsburg, Penn., played only songs with moon in the lyrics.”

David McHam, 85, of Houston, who worked the night makeup desk at the Waco News-Tribune that evening and taught journalism at Baylor University, acknowledged some anticipation about the moon landing around town, though the event only briefly eclipsed more earthly concerns such as the war: “Things were real quiet that Sunday, as though everyone was getting ready. And afterward, a great sense of relief and pride. There was a sense that we, the United States, could do anything. Too bad that didn’t and doesn’t last.”

Yet it’s questionable whether the United States today even pursues projects of similar ambition, scope and national pride. Some might suggest that the southern border wall envisioned by President Trump qualifies except that, while it inspires some, it repulses and offends millions more, given all it says about America in the 21st century. Republicans and Democrats often talk of a nationwide infrastructure plan — hints of which we witness to our immediate frustration as a key section of Interstate 35 through Waco undergoes a four-year, $341 million overhaul — but one questions whether a broader endeavor is in the realm of possibilities given plummeting relations between the political parties plus runaway federal spending.

In a conversation last week, an economist suggested to me that while the Trumpian economy might not necessarily represent a present-day equivalent to the Apollo space program, it is a supreme achievement. It’s regularly cited by those most excited about the country’s direction. And while my acquaintance declined to credit the president’s oft-vilified (and supposedly foreign-born) predecessor, history does record the present recovery as the longest in U.S. history at 121 months. Short-term interest rates remain low. Inflation has been kept in check. Oil prices have been stable, bolstering investment and consumer spending. My friend even predicts GDP growth of 7 percent in coming months (though waved off a $20 bet I offered against this prospect).

But while a bustling economy might cheer those of us trying to ignore racially charged rhetoric rivaling that of the 1960s or our government’s detaining migrant women and children in cramped, unsanitary conditions along the Texas borderland or even the notion of Putinism infecting our politics, there’s little conventional heroism and sacrifice in what transpires on Wall Street. It doesn’t leave the proverbial youth, in America or elsewhere, spellbound, dreaming of far horizons and imagining in himself or herself the courage and intellect required to negotiate such vistas. It can’t rival the guts involved in landing the lunar module Eagle on the moon with just 25 seconds of descent fuel remaining. And a latter-day Gilded Age doesn’t instill pride in quite the way Lewis and Clark, John Wesley Powell, Chuck Yeager, the Wright Brothers and the Apollo space mission do. It doesn’t present the risks the White House grasped so readily in 1969 that speechwriter William Safire prepared a speech for President Nixon if circumstances required that the astronauts be abandoned on the moon, left to either (quoting Safire) “starve to death or commit suicide.” (McHam prided himself on writing the News-Tribune headline for the moon landing — “Historic Step in Space Exploration Taken As U.S. Astronauts Land, Walk on Moon” — days before landing or moon walk. When later asked what he would have done had the lunar module crashed, McHam said the idea of Apollo 11 failure and death never occurred to him.)

From moon to malaise

In short, little declared or envisioned by our leadership today rivals the thundering pride in American ingenuity and test-pilot daring that in only a few years put the moon within America’s reach in the turbulent, distracting 1960s — an astounding (if costly) engineering feat given that, when President John F. Kennedy proposed putting an American on the moon within a decade, the technological know-how simply didn’t exist. Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, 83, who grew up in Waco attending a segregated school, summed up in an address last week the legacy of Kennedy’s rousing Cold War vision (best articulated by JFK at Rice University in 1962) and the astronauts, scientists and countless others who pursued it after his 1963 assassination.

“As we watched in those days in July 50 years ago, dreams began to form,” said Johnson, the first female African-American chief psychiatric nurse at the veterans hospital in Dallas, the first African American to serve on the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and now its chairwoman. “Every person watching the success of the Apollo program, young and old, no matter their background, was filled with inspiration. Some youngsters could say to themselves, ‘I will be an astronaut. I will be a scientist.’ As they looked up to the moon, they pictured themselves up there amongst those American heroes an unimaginable distance away.”

No wonder conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, 39, referred to the race to the moon as arguably the last major event of national vigor in his March 5 visit to Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Douthat suggested that since the race ended, America has fallen into what he describes as a lengthy period of decadence in the sense of societal and political malaise infecting both citizenry and leadership. Our country, he said, no longer seems capable of rallying around anything great or truly ambitious .

“There is this idea about the technological sublime ... that American society generated reliably and consistently across most of its history these kinds of moments of technological achievement that were sublime, that were sort of awe-inspiring, moments that the nation as a whole participated in — the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, the building of the skyscrapers, and this all sort of culminates with the space program,” Douthat said. “And then there really hasn’t been anything since except the Internet, which is a technology of simulation. It may be remarkable but it’s a very different kind of thing.”

The best of Trumpism, Douthat said, may well be his suggestion for a “space force,” a sixth military branch that would train and equip military space personnel for missions of high-flying national security. Republican Congressman Mike Waltz, 45, a combat-decorated Green Beret and former White House counterterrorism adviser who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, concurs on the need for such attention, something he stressed on C-SPAN last week : “Let me be very clear here. We are being challenged by the Chinese and the Russians in space in the 21st century. Both countries have explicitly said in their national security strategies that if we ever come to any kind of conflict, they are not going to defeat us by sinking aircraft carriers or taking [us] on tank-to-tank and fighter-to-fighter. They’re going to take us down by taking out the infrastructure in space that all of these entities depend on — all of the satellites, all of the cameras, all of the communications and relay infrastructure that is up there.”

During Ross Douthat’s wide-ranging discussion at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, a man in the audience who said he works for NASA noted that in earlier times a “technological world spirit” drove NASA’s can-do innovation: “What actually is happening at the agency now is something very different and far more curious because we’ve got the capabilities to do a lot of things. We could go to Mars and explore a planet we’ve never been to. We could colonize the moon and set up this self-sustaining human colony. We could look inward. Our moonshot could be global warming. We could build a bunch of satellites and do all this data to help with the climate-change problem.

“Instead,” he said, “for a generation, for 20 years, we’ve drifted aimlessly among tepid commitments to tepid objectives. And maybe out of all that institutional impotence, the private sector now has taken over the role of NASA. Billionaires with egos to match are now dueling each other for the things we used to do institutionally.”

What’s happening?

So long as presidents, pastors and pundits encourage or tolerate increasing divisiveness on the earth, so long as they spurn the better angels of which Lincoln spoke, the dispiriting drift and stagnation cited by Douthat and others will likely continue to characterize American society, turning malaise into paralysis and dysfunction and, eventually, self-destruction. One can sense the longing to capture the dynamism of the past through Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s “One Small Step to Protect Human Heritage in Space Act,” which would provide legal recognition and protection for Apollo moon sites and artifacts “from intentional and unintentional disturbances from future missions” — a wonderfully impotent gesture given the United States no longer has the technological capacity to readily enforce this legislation. The bill passed the Senate Thursday.

But then as David McHam suggests, events such as the 1969 moon landing have their limits to sway and inspire. In the wee hours of the morning after the landing, he and Larry Surratt, night city editor, thought to save the Page One press plates for both first and second editions of the newspaper to showcase at Baylor as historic relics. McHam recalled retiring secure in the knowledge he had preserved one bit of local history linked to the Apollo mission.

“About 8 or 8:30 in the morning, the phone rings,” he recalled. “I didn’t know the guy, he was more of an administrator than anything, but he was over the entire [News-Tribune] print area, everything from typesetting to the press. He said he’d heard that I’d stolen the plates. Well, I had a good use for them, that these were historic to keep. But he said, ‘They belong to us and they’re worth a lot of money for the lead in them and if you don’t get them back here in the next hour, I’m going to call the police on you.’

“And that’s where I made a critical mistake,” McHam told me. “I should have gone over to [News-Tribune Editor] Harry Provence’s house and given them to him. I mean, I’d only had about five hours of sleep. I thought this guy just wanted them back so they could have them. It wasn’t until I went to work the next day that I found out he immediately had those plates melted down.”

Can space travel again inspire and in certain moments unify Americans and regain respect around the globe? Peter James, 34, assistant professor of planetary geophysics at Baylor University and lead researcher in a new study indicating a mysterious, miles-deep mass of material beneath the moon’s largest crater may be evidence of an asteroid collision, suggests the right stuff in space exploration may require scope, ambition and action.

“People are definitely interested [in space] if there’s something happening,” he told me. “The problem is we just haven’t had the big, historic space exploration that your generation had with Apollo. But hopefully within our lifetimes we’ll get to see something monumental like humans going back to the moon or going to Mars.”

That said, James underlines one concern: “I think people don’t realize how huge space is because the moon is pretty far from Earth, but any other planet is hundreds of time farther than the moon is. If you shrank the sun down to a billionth of its size, it would be about five feet wide. And if you put that at Baylor, the edge of the solar system would be at McLennan Community College. It’s huge. And at that size, Earth would be the size of a marble. And the nearest star would be all the way around the globe. This is something I have been trying to convince people to do for a while — to put a scale solar system along the river [flowing through downtown Waco past Baylor]. It really is huge.”

Former Associated Press aerospace reporter Ronald Thompson, 81, of Sarasota, Florida, who covered space missions up to the deadly Apollo 1 fire of 1967 before switching to coverage of racial unrest in Mississippi and Louisiana (“from one hotbox to another,” he grimly put it), suggests other worthy missions exist besides the moon or Mars — but public resolve and leadership may be lacking.

“Out there looming is the whole question of our atmosphere,” he told me Saturday at Waco’s Mayborn Museum. “What are we doing to our own planet, as opposed to going to the moon? What are we doing to our climate? That would take a huge commitment that has yet to be rolled out. Yes, we carried out John Kennedy’s wishes that he never lived to see, with the huge commitment it took. We still have the ability to do the impossible in so many ways. Of course, back then we had competition with Russia and we were all afraid of what was happening in the Cold War. And there was something magical about it, as opposed to global warming, to be chasing after what we as kids saw as the Man in the Moon.”

Given grim possibilities such as the occasional asteroid collision evident through James’ recent moon research and the disturbing developments almost daily confirming global warming on Earth, no shortage of immense challenges now present themselves to mankind. And to piggyback on the late Eric Sevareid’s poetic observation upon the Apollo 11 launch 50 years ago, to fail in these latter-day gauntlets may leave us with not even primeval ooze into which we can retreat.

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