In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced to Congress his intention that America should be the first country to land a man on the moon and we would do it within the decade. In Houston in 1962, he explained that we “choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was a mission which would require what Tom Wolfe described as The Right Stuff. This July we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that moon landing. To fully understand its significance, we must consider just how challenging it was.
It may be tempting to think that the era of the moon landing was a simpler time, because NASA’s computers were less powerful than today’s cellphones. It was a turbulent and violent decade. A year after giving the “We choose to go to the moon” speech, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A year before we landed on the moon, his brother was killed, just two months after Martin Luther King, Jr. The summer that the men with the crewcuts went into the space capsule was the summer of the Stonewall Riots and Woodstock. In 1969, Americans were getting bogged down in Vietnam. But very few of us knew that we were also covertly bombing Cambodia. We had difficulties at home and abroad. The United States was not a more perfect union in 1969 than we are in 2019.
When Kennedy promised we would land on the moon by the end of the decade, it was not obvious that it was possible. Before the moon landing, our space program was behind the Soviets on seemingly every major achievement. The Soviets had the first satellite, the first animals in space, and the first man in space. Even Kennedy acknowledged that the moon landing would require all kinds of things we did not have, including “new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented.” As seen in Hidden Figures, some of NASA’s computing was still done by hand. We did not land on the moon because we started from a position of technical superiority.
But the moon landing was a goal which Kennedy believed would “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” That goal brought out “the right stuff,” as Tom Wolfe described. In test pilots and fighter pilots, NASA found men who were confident and willing to take risks and make sacrifices, for the thrill and for the sake of national and scientific advancement. Charles Fishman’s new book, One Giant Leap, chronicles even more of the people involved at NASA and all of the remarkable efforts made getting an American to the moon.
Despite party politics and the Cold War, there was an idealism integrated into the mission and leadership based on exhortation rather than fear, which persisted through three presidents. Kennedy asserted that we must be first to the moon and be leaders in space, because “our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort” for “the good of all men.” In 1969, Nixon echoed Kennedy’s idealism when he phoned Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon. He said: “For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives. And for people all over the world, I am sure they too join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. And as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth.” When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he called it a “giant leap for mankind” not “for ’Merica.” It was a mission to enhance our own national prestige, but one which also had the possibility to advance the entire global human community. Some of this was a rosy view of our own global leadership, but while we did plant the American flag on the moon, we did not plant weapons of destruction there.
Precisely because it is limitless, space is the best place to test the limits of our courage and abilities. In 1969, the United States put two men on the moon. We didn’t accept the challenge with all the existing technical expertise, or a united society supporting the mission, or a lack of external threats. But despite the difficulties, it was a mission led with inspiration and idealism. Confidence was encouraged rather than fear. The space race was about advancing our own national interests, but not so narrowly conceived that they excluded the interests of all others. It was for all of these reasons that it was a great achievement then and a great example for us now.