Forty-five years ago last Sunday, a human being walked on the moon. The event was a significant milestone in the history of the world as the reach of the human race expanded. The footprints left by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the 10 astronauts who followed testify to the ability of the United States to set a national goal and achieve it.
It seems commonplace today for rockets to go into space. Indeed, there are plans for a mission to Mars. The Obama administration would like to put humans on an asteroid by 2025 and to launch a Mars mission by the 2030s. In fact, one of those two astronauts on the moon 45 years ago, Buzz Aldrin, has urged the U.S. to accelerate a Mars mission to carry out an eventual human settlement on Mars.
This anniversary is a moment to consider the goal of landing a man on the moon and what that meant 50 years ago. It was May 25, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy announced a new national objective of space travel unmatched by any other nation or time. He asserted that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” He urged Congress to approve significantly expanded funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to accomplish this goal. And it did.
At the time this seemed like an audacious undertaking. The United States had created the Mercury program and recruited seven astronauts who were in training for space travel. But the United States was behind the Soviet Union in the “space race.” A Soviet cosmonaut had orbited the earth a month before Kennedy’s speech, while the U.S. still had not achieved even that objective.
But NASA engineers and technicians carried out mission after mission in the Mercury program and then the subsequent Gemini and Apollo programs to accomplish that goal. From John Glenn’s orbit in 1962 through missions of increasing distance, length and complexity, NASA gathered more data on space exploration and applied that knowledge to the next mission and then the next. A tragedy on January 27, 1967 set back the program. Three astronauts were killed during a training test when their cabin caught fire. But NASA learned lessons about astronaut safety and continued pushing towards the goal.
On July 20, 1969, the goal was achieved when Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men on the moon. When Armstrong stepped on to the moon surface and said “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Americans everywhere watched on television and contemplated how this almost unbelievable act had been achieved. I remember watching on a small television set up in a large tent while attending the Boy Scout National Jamboree. Many Americans can remember where they were and what they were doing at that moment. We felt proud of what our nation had accomplished.
At a time when many Americans believe the nation is going in the wrong direction or cynicism is rampant, it is important to remember that Americans can set a major national goal and achieve it. Future goals are not just about space travel. They include providing high quality education to all of our children, assuring that Americans have access to decent health care, preserving our natural resources for generations to come and assuring that all have the opportunity to share in the American dream.
But setting a goal and meeting it requires purpose, unity and sacrifice. It means that Americans work together for a common goal rather than thinking solely of the individual. It includes the concept of community on a national level rather than merely “taking care of number one.”
There are still moons to explore, problems to solve, challenges to meet. This is a time to remember what Americans – united, resolute, bravely facing the future – can achieve, if we wish to do so.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.