A decade before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the lunar surface, a popular children’s book was published with a title that sounded like a promise:
The illustrations showed a young boy’s trip in a rocket to a space station, to a lunar lander and finally a moon base. He went. Pretty soon, you would go too.
Moon trips had been predicted and depicted for centuries, but they were fantasies about green cheese, alien encounters, post-human societies. It would be different for baby boomers. They grew up believing they actually would go to the real moon, often, routinely, as the natural result of an optimistic and audacious human spirit; or perhaps as a patriotic demonstration of American superiority. Or both.
By the time John F. Kennedy had become president, though, the Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. into space. In response, Kennedy pledged that this nation would go to the moon, either in partnership with the Soviets for all humankind, or in competition.
“We choose to go to the moon!” Kennedy famously said, and to do other great things “not because they are easy but because they are hard, and because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
The world was at turns transfixed and ambivalent. The quest for the moon was the greatest and most expensive adventure ever undertaken by a government. It was the last thing we needed: a diversion of attention and resources from solving serious human problems like war, racial strife and poverty. And yet it was simultaneously a remedy to those problems, generating knowledge, technologies and opportunities for new thinking. It was the best of competition, mounted without military combat; and yet it was itself a sort of combat, extolling American virtues, sending active or recently retired Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine officers into space. It was a martial exercise, a science project, an engineering marvel.
It was the apogee of the arrogance and exclusiveness of white men, and yet it provided the most consequential opportunities in science and technology in the U.S. for women and people of color.
The era of actual moon landings, moon walks and moon broadcasts began on July 20, 1969, when the Eagle landed at a site the astronauts had named Tranquility Base and when Armstrong muffed his line (It was supposed to be one small step for a man — Armstrong — and a giant leap for mankind). The first moon visitors left tokens that speak to the contrary nature of the whole enterprise. They planted the American flag, as if they were conquering new land. And they left a plaque to share their motives with all those children who knew they, too, would one day go to the moon: “We came in peace for all mankind.”
And then, 3 1/2 years later, the moon age was over. The last human footprints were left on the lunar surface by Apollo 17 astronauts just before Christmas 1972. All moon voyages began and ended during the abbreviated Nixon presidency. Cape Kennedy, renamed for Nixon’s moon-reaching nemesis, reverted to Cape Canaveral. The space race had been won, the nation lost interest, the costs were deemed excessive. There followed a succession of near-space anticlimaxes: Apollo-Soyuz. Skylab. And confidence-shaking disasters: Challenger. Columbia.
At times, the moon age seemed to have become a marker not of what we collectively could accomplish, but what we could not. “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t ...” — fill in blank. It was in commercials — “They can’t make a great-tasting filter cigarette.” And it was on our minds — “They can’t cure cancer.” “They can’t end homelessness.” “They can’t stop war.” What kind of a society goes to the moon and then walks away, without turning the same sense of mission and fervor to its most pressing problems?
Could we go back? Would we want to? Do we remember how?
It may well be that the next human voice transmitting from the moon will speak a language other than English and will raise a flag other than the Stars and Stripes. How should Americans feel about that? Do they shrug and say, “Been there, done that,” and congratulate the Chinese or Indian astronauts or whoever the newcomers are?
Or do they feel a pang of regret that in the last half century we built none of the moon bases that a generation had grown up to believe was their birthright? Does the nation look back to that day, a half-century ago, as the apex of its greatness, and to every day since as a retreat?
U.S. scientists and engineers are now working on a human trip to Mars, and it may happen. Meanwhile, they have extended the human reach into space with wondrous rovers, probes and other instruments unimaginable a half century ago. Orbiting telescopes unlock the mysteries of the universe. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is traveling (along with music from Mexico, Japan, Zaire and a dozen other places) in interstellar space. There are plans to send a drone through the atmosphere of the Saturn moon Titan.
Remarkable as they are, these robotic voyages lack the drama or the romance of human spaceflight, and may fall short of the implied promise that each of us, any of us, would one day fly to the moon.
But all of us did go, in a sense, a half century ago.
We went to the moon. We said we would do it, and we did it. Ahead of deadline, if perhaps not under budget. We did it. And if we did that, surely we can do anything.