For forty-nine months between 1968 and 1972, two dozen Americans had the great good fortune to briefly visit the Moon. Half of us became the first emissaries from Earth to tread its dusty surface. We who did so were privileged to represent the hopes and dreams of all humanity. For mankind it was a giant leap for a species that evolved from the Stone Age to create sophisticated rockets and spacecraft that made a Moon landing possible. For one crowning moment, we were creatures of the cosmic ocean, an epoch that a thousand years hence may be seen as the signature of our century. – Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and committed the United States to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth before the decade’s end. “No single space project in this period,” he suggested, “will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Kennedy’s vision of an American space program was necessitated by the Cold War and influenced by lofty ideals of public service and America’s can-do attitude. Although the initial reaction was one of skepticism and doubt, the American spirit prevailed. Kennedy’s bold vision unleashed American ingenuity and creativity and the Apollo space program was born.
Eight years later, on a warm summer evening, my family gathered in my Aunt Shirley’s house in Bath, Ohio, to watch the world’s first moon landing. We sat on the living room floor and surrounded the television set as we watched intently Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin become the first Americans, the first human beings, to walk on the surface of the Moon. It was an inspiring and uplifting event, one that allowed us to focus beyond ourselves and reflect upon the world’s common humanity. On that July evening in 1969, less than a decade after President Kennedy first challenged Americans to reach for the stars, the human race accomplished what was perhaps its greatest technological achievement.
It was a moment of faith and revelation; faith in the American spirit and the revelation of a profound truth born of increased perspective and understanding. President Nixon called the Apollo 11 mission the “greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation.” And yet, as magnificent an accomplishment as was the moon landing, “[M]ost significant,” wrote Norman Cousins, “was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the Earth.” A photograph taken from the Lunar Module, shown above, continues to remind us of humanity’s shared destiny and allows the world to see itself from afar, to place the universe in its proper perspective, and to look homeward. It increases our awareness of the uniqueness of life, permitting us to view the Earth as a rare and beautiful light that must be protected and cared for. Although less appreciated today, the photograph helps us better understand that we are but a tiny oasis of life in a vast and overwhelming universe.
Neil Armstrong has recalled that, while standing on the Moon’s surface, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put [up] my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Frank Borman, who orbited the Moon during the Apollo 8 mission, was fascinated by the view of the Earth from 240,000 miles away. “Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”
I have often thought back on that magical moment when, as a ten year-old boy, the mystery of the universe unfolded before my eyes, when the possibility of peace and international understanding seemed real, the world a borderless mass of humanity temporarily united in a common endeavor. For at least a few minutes on that July day, young children the world over, of every race and nationality, briefly stopped what they were doing to look up at the moon. For one brief shining moment, Russians and Americans forgot about the Cold War; blacks and whites set aside their prejudices; Catholics and Protestants prayed to the same God; and Arabs and Jews together wondered about their place in the universe. “The eyes of the world now look into space,” said President Kennedy at Rice University in 1962, “to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”
As an American, I felt a sense of national pride that day which has rarely been replicated since. It was a time when anything seemed possible, when peace and harmony momentarily triumphed, when divisiveness over the Vietnam War and the generation gap, racial tensions and immigration, drugs and crime were temporarily set aside. Only a year earlier, we had experienced the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and our nation’s cities erupted in violence; young men were coming home in body bags and our leaders were caught in the lies and miscalculations that rendered a formerly obedient nation cynical and rebellious. On that July evening in 1969, when we looked up at the Moon, the future appeared bright and hopeful, the conflicts, bloodshed, and sectarian violence then enveloping the globe temporarily forgotten.
As Buzz Aldrin told a joint session of Congress in September 1969, the mission to the Moon “should give all of us hope and inspiration to overcome some of the more difficult problems here on earth. The Apollo lesson is that national goals can be met where there is a strong enough will to do so.” Aldrin continued, “The first step on the Moon was a step toward our sister planets and ultimately toward the stars. ‘A small step for a man,’ was a statement of fact; ‘a giant leap for mankind’ [was] a hope for the future.”
Our nation will soon embark on its final Space Shuttle mission and the United States, facing an economic crisis at home and never ending military conflicts abroad, appears to no longer strive for supremacy in space. The President’s 2011 budget called for cancellation of the Constellation program, which had planned to once again send men (and women) to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. Although President Obama is committed to exploring space, his plans call for increased involvement of private enterprise and international cooperation, with a shift in focus to international security, scientific responses to climate change, and the development of long-term missions that remain undefined. With concerns mounting over deficits and debt, the nation’s politicians appear to have ceded Kennedy’s vision of an American frontier in space to the budgetary axe. Perhaps it is the politically wise approach, but I cannot help but feel some sadness that there is something lacking and uninspired in this vision for the future, a defect in our national character.
I understand the need to reduce our deficit and trim the national debt, but for the past fifty years, space exploration has provided tangible benefits far in excess of our monetary expenditures. The space program is why we now have television satellite dishes, medical imaging devices, improved fire-resistant materials and smoke detectors, cordless power tools, and better shock-absorbing materials in helmets. It is why we have made so many advances in global positioning devices, food freeze-drying and preservation processes, and communication and weather satellites.
Aside from practical advances, however, there are many intangible reasons to explore space with a sense of national purpose and zeal. We need the stars and the Moon, a sense of higher purpose, a chance to reflect beyond ourselves and our narrow parochial interests. We need on occasion to see the world from afar. In discussing the first voyage to the Moon, Aldrin explained, “This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more still than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even than the efforts of one nation.” The lunar voyage “stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”
It costs a great deal of money to explore space, but great nations embrace bold visions and high ideals; they lead the way in scientific discovery and technological advancement. And they enable us to dream of limitless possibility, of shared destiny and a common purpose. “Mankind’s journey into space,” said Ronald Reagan in 1988, “will become part of our unending journey of liberation. In the limitless reaches of space, we will find liberation from tyranny, from scarcity, from ignorance and from war. We will find the means to protect this Earth and to nurture every human life, and to explore the universe. . . .This is our mission, this is our destiny.”
In The Once and Future King, the first of the King Arthur trilogy by T.H. White, the great magician teacher Merlin turned a young Arthur into a bird so that he could view the world from the sky. Arthur discovers that, from the air above, there are no boundaries below. He realizes that wars between nations erupt over borders that, in reality, do not exist. "When you see from a higher perspective, there are no boundaries, and so there’s no reason for fighting," affirms Merlin. Perhaps this is why we must continue to explore space and discover the universe – to learn Merlin’s lesson; to view the world from a higher perspective; to understand that the world in its beauty and creation is without boundaries; that we are but one people on a tiny planet in a vast universe.