Amidst the Cold War and competition with the Soviet Union, American pride was clearly evident on July 20, 1969, when the United States won the race to the moon. Perhaps that was one day of unity and particular regard for the American spirit, wrapped neatly in the very picture of accomplishment. The image of the flag of the United States on the moon, a distant heavenly body, is as important in the collective American memory as the flag raised on Iwo Jima in World War II or flying in tattered reserve over ground zero after Sept. 11, 2001. Our flag is often a symbol of American resolve, spirit and strength.
Just as most Americans of a graying age recall where they were upon learning of President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, many remember watching televised images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon and venturing forth on their moon stroll. The words of that first step — “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — still echo in our minds, even as other memories now fade. These endure because for the first time in history two earthlings visited another body in our universe, one that silently witnessed all that had gone before in our evolution by fits and starts.
I remember how neighbors, friends and classmates crowded around the television in my parents’ den in our Waco home, watching in wonder. Yet most of the wonder came from my grandparents. Dad’s parents were still living and were born in Russia before Russian villages had electricity or running water. Airplanes then were non-existent, as were automobiles. They were almost unbelieving that man could travel in space and land and walk on extraterrestrial soil. And this blue-moon day came just eight years after President Kennedy issued his famous challenge in 1961: “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 Earth.”
He doubled down on this theme in a speech at Rice University in Houston: “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. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”
The year 1969 brimmed with historic happenings, some good, some bad. A Republican, Richard Nixon, became president. Elvis Presley was recording in Memphis. Sirhan Sirhan admitted to killing Robert F. Kennedy and James Earl Ray admitted to killing Martin Luther King Jr. the year before. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower died in Washington, D.C. College campuses were rife with student uprisings protesting everything from war to politics. The very first case of AIDS was observed in St. Louis. The Stonewall Riots marked the start of the LGBTQ rights movement.
Category 5 Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi gulf coast. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was released and “The Brady Bunch” premiered on ABC-TV. The New York Mets won the World Series. Nixon, in a TV address, asked the nation to join him in supporting the Vietnam War effort and Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced media critics of Nixon as “an effete corps of impudent snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Yet amidst all this, the vision of Americans landing on the moon signified a defining moment in history, at least something all of us were happy to share and champion.
Fifty years later, amid drones, cellphones, smart televisions and driverless cars, we thank the moon exploration program for freeze-dried food, Velcro, memory foam, water filters, micro-electronics and computer systems. We also recognize that we now spend more time with electronics and less time with family and friends. At the same time we, as a nation, are perhaps even more divided, even more mean-spirited, even more unappreciative and even more unforgiving than at any time in our history, save for the bloody Civil War.
President Kennedy’s dream of space travel ignited the American spirit well ahead of the trials of the next 50 years. One wonders if a bold new dream for the future might result in a kinder, gentler and more unified country today. Perhaps all the political extremes might meld into focus, driven by hope, excitement and collaboration — the sort that, in Kennedy’s words at Rice, would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Maybe it’s time to again make that “one small step” to advance the American spirit. In remembering the U.S. moon landing 50 years ago, let us hope we can celebrate while allowing that memory to encourage us to be better, to move forward as one nation under God, complete with a grand old flag and the riches of liberty and justice for all. And let us remember the moon knows our past and will preside over whatever future we choose here on Earth.