Science & Tech

America, the Moon, and National Memory

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the American flag on the surface of the moon, July 20, 1969. (NASA)
Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary is an occasion for Americans to recall their ability to do the impossible.

Three days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the nation watched an elaborate state funeral unfold with great pomp, circumstance, and majesty in Washington, D.C. Americans, like most of the world, were in shock, and probably never gave a thought as to what it took to organize a major event like this on such short notice. Our British cousins, however, were incredulous.

London had been planning Winston Churchill’s funeral since the 1950s (he would not die until two years after Kennedy, in 1965). They even scheduled a week of rehearsals after the actual death took place. Shortly after the Kennedy funeral, the Duke of Norfolk, who was in charge of Churchill’s ceremony, kept asking any American he could find: “Three days — how?”

Americans never gave it a second thought. The Panama Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Hoover Dam, and, later, the national highway system were all built, but Americans never dwelled on any of them, always looking ahead to the next big project.

The penultimate moment of national achievement (not counting World War II, because it was a joint effort with our allies) came five and a half years after that state funeral, when the world watched in amazement as two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, stepped on the surface of the moon in 1969, accomplishing a goal set by Kennedy in 1961 — to put men on the moon and return them safely before the decade was out. They made it with five months to spare.

Perhaps just as astonishing was the reaction that followed. After tremendous fascination with the space race, the public’s interest in the entire program, once it was won, seemed to fade just as quickly. So much so that the television networks barely covered the five subsequent moon missions ending with Apollo 17, in December 1972.

There is a full-scale Saturn V rocket on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s not a model. It’s an actual rocket, with all the intricate wiring, engines, and parts, which was supposed to lift off with astronauts on one of three scrubbed missions. Congress cut off funding, reflecting the disinterest of the voters. Now, all the labor and struggle and achievement to build this marvel just sits there in Houston, a Texas-sized reminder of what we once did and then simply left behind.

Sixteen years after Apollo 11, I was living in Beijing and I noticed something that at first seemed strange. The Chinese people I met thought much more highly of my country’s scientific achievements than I did. They were in awe of the United States over things that I simply took for granted.

I remember thinking: Well, of course we did this. That’s what happens when you put thousands of smart engineers with slide rules together, along with tough construction workers and devoted administrators focused on accomplishing the mission. Taxpayers footed the entire bill and, at the apex of this entire vast enterprise, you find a select few incredibly brave and relatively modest guys, who put their lives at risk to prove that all the calculations were correct. Like most Americans, I became used to great achievements.

It is now 50 years, half a century, since that first successful mission to the moon. There are two films now in theaters on this anniversary. First Man came out at the end of last year, and focuses on Armstrong, delving into his quiet, no-nonsense personality. More recent is the truly amazing documentary called simply Apollo 11, which uses archival footage almost exclusively. Perhaps it has taken 50 years for us to understand just how incredible the moon landing really was. Every intricate detail — every detail — in the millions of parts of this mission had to work perfectly. And, of course, they all did.

Since that flight and the rejection of the program, we’ve had 50 years of government ideas, many of which have proven to be disastrous failures. We’ve had 50 years of political leadership that doesn’t seem worthy of our forebears, 50 years of multi-millionaire actors, sports figures, and musicians who play the role of heroes but don’t quite measure up to the real thing (and would do well to take a lesson in humility from Neil Armstrong). Not surprisingly, 50 years of constant denigration of America’s achievements, with a major focus on its flaws, has become a standard part of the curriculum in our colleges and universities. All of this has combined to, no doubt, undermine the confidence of many Americans.

So, who would have ever guessed that perhaps the greatest value of the space program was neither the scientific experiments, nor the ancillary inventions like Velcro, nor the fact that for one brief moment, the entire world came together in awe over live pictures transmitted from 238,855 miles away from earth.

Fifty years later, Apollo’s greatest value may be the simple reminder that this country has, indeed, accomplished amazing things in the past, things that no other country could do.

Even though we may have lost our way in a moment mired in silliness, fluff, and self-flagellation, we are indeed capable of accomplishing the unimaginable. Fifty years later, Apollo 11 reminds us that, while all countries may be, as former president Obama put it, exceptional in their own way, no other country has done this.

Not one.

That’s not a bad lesson for all of us to remember today, and it’s a lesson Americans should never, ever forget.


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