Wednesday, July 6, 2011

For One Brief Shining Moment

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.


  1. Mark,

    As a seven and a half year-old-boy, I can’t claim to have had deep thoughts about the meaning of the Apollo 11 moon landing, beyond possibly being thrilled that we beat the commies (it was, after all, a race, and later in life I would learn that it had been a contest between good and unimaginable evil). As I tried to look around my dad, who was using an early version of a VCR – his 1959 Yashica 35mm camera – to capture pictures of the TV screen, I probably also reveled in the fact that we were one step closer to kicking Klingon ass and ogling green-colored alien babes.

    I doubt that the Russians, gathered in clusters around a limited number of TVs, forgot about the Cold War and think it likely, instead, that they sensed the beginning of the end, watching an American flag being planted on the moon. That is, after all, what President Kennedy was referring to in his magnificent speech: the USSR’s “hostile flag of conquest” versus the “banner of freedom and peace” known as the Stars and Stripes. I find myself constantly reevaluating JFK, normal I suppose, for a man made up of the worst parts of a President Clinton and the best parts of a President Reagan. If the moon landing was the beginning of the end for the Evil Empire, it might also be true for the U.S.A. Could that speech be given today, filled as it was, with politically incorrect themes of national superiority, manly daring, and the recognition that the United States, as a morally superior nation, has a duty to lead the world and defend it against tyranny? Today, our own leaders see nothing exceptional about our country and are less concerned with leading the advancement of the human race than with diapering its citizens.

    If we are to survive as a nation, we must return to our pre-emasculated days when leaders spoke of “winning,” be it in war or the race for space; when presidents expected this country to lead other nations in the greatest adventure of all time, because they knew that only if we are the “world’s leading space-faring nation” can tyranny be foiled. We must reclaim the knowledge that the United States is superior to all other nations and it must, again, occupy a position of pre-eminence among the world’s governments for the sake of peace. And we must return to God and dependence on His blessings to keep us safe while we set sail on the “most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

    And I might add, we need to return to the use of the word “man.” As a child I was smart enough to ask my mother why Captain Kirk said, “. . . to boldly go where no man has gone before,” when the leggy Lt. Uhura sat right behind him. I was smart enough, then, to understand my mother’s explanation that “man” referred to “mankind.” Now I was a stupid child, so if I could grasp it then, anyone can grasp it now.

    By the way, Merlin was wrong. Boundaries and borders do exist and are quite easy, from a bird’s view or even from space, to see. Jump on Bing Maps and behold the natural borders made of rivers, oceans and mountain ranges, and the man-made borders of super highways, fences and Great Walls. And that bird, flying over, for example, the U.S./Mexican border, would see plenty of reasons for fighting. On the south, the bird would see mass graves missing only heads that are proudly displayed on fence posts to proclaim that on that side of the border anarchy reigns and horror follows. On the other side, the bird would see law and order and sense the fear that soon, “something wicked this way comes” from across the Rio Grande. Borders are real and inches mean everything.

    Rich R.

  2. Rich,

    Perhaps you are merely a realist who simply lacks tolerance for idealistic visions and dreams of peace. It is likely that your view is simply a reflection of how the majority of humankind approaches national borders and boundaries. There is a reason I have often referred to human beings as a rotten species. The failure to behold a grand vision and the need to believe that we are superior to everyone else is to fail to recognize our common humanity.

    Note that when Buzz Aldrin spoke about the Moon landing, he said, "We who did so were privileged to represent the hopes and dreams of all humanity." From the perspective of the universe looking down at a tiny Earth, one cannot help but marvel at how clueless human beings have been over the course of history. It is why we have such things as "Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, [and] pestilence..."

    I believe Merlin was right, but I understand that most mere mortals are incapable of seeing the world through a bird's eyes. Of course, it would require all of humanity to do so -- this is not a commentary directed at the United States alone. Absent the ability to look at the world through a different set of eyes, however, we can never as a people hope to someday make the Earth more closely reflect God's Kingdom.