Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the day a man — Apollo 11 Cmdr. Neil Armstrong — first walked on the moon. He was joined on the mission by command module pilot Michael Collins and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. The moon landing was the fulfillment of the late President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon before the decade’s end. As the NASA website recounts, “Kennedy felt great pressure to have the United States ‘catch up to and overtake’ the Soviet Union in the ‘space race.’ ... (Soviet cosmonaut) Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space on April 12, 1961. ... While Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, he only flew on a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth, as Gagarin had done.”
That the first person to walk on the surface of the moon was an American was a source of jubilation for our nation.
As Jeff Forster, then an intern with LNP, recounts in today’s Perspective section, “The people who spoke with me were dazed and giddy and grateful and proud. And hopeful for a safe return home for the astronauts. They saw the hand of God in the achievements of man.”
Forster had been dispatched by his editor to report on the reactions of Lancaster County residents to the moon landing. (It was just one of countless times in which this newspaper captured the voices of people here as they responded to major developments in the story of this nation.)
At breakfast tables this morning, at dinner tables this evening, county residents undoubtedly will share their memories of that glorious Sunday in July 1969 when the seemingly impossible was made possible.
And as the editorial cartoon on today’s Opinion page suggests, some of us will marvel that there was indeed a time when Americans set their sights on a single goal, and rejoiced together at its achievement.
Last week was a rough one for the state of our union, roiled by the president’s racist remarks and the debate that ensued. The anniversary of the moon landing won’t erase the scars the American body politic sustained. But it offers a much-needed reprieve.
And some lessons, maybe.
First, this one: We’ve gone through difficult times before.
As Forster noted, the United States in the summer of 1969 was in the throes of the Vietnam War, and only a year or so removed from the assassinations of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Woodstock was looming — it would enthrall young people and disgust older people, and sharpen the divide between the generations.
But that July, Americans young and old sat before black-and-white televisions to watch dozens of hours of coverage as Apollo 11 rocketed into outer space, its lunar module landing eventually in the lunar mare — a flat, dark area on the moon — known as the Sea of Tranquility.
And then Armstrong descended from the lunar module, Eagle, on a ladder. He stepped onto the surface of the moon about 109 hours and 42 minutes after Apollo 11’s launch, according to NASA’s website. Aldrin followed him some 20 minutes later.
The sweetness of the accomplishment was tempered by the knowledge that there had been losses along the way. The Apollo 11 astronauts left tokens of sorrow and hope — two very human emotions — on the surface of the moon. As the NASA website tells us, “Commemorative medallions bearing the names of the three Apollo 1 astronauts who lost their lives in a launch pad fire, and two cosmonauts who also died in accidents, were left on the moon’s surface.” Also left there: a 1 1/2-inch silicon disk containing goodwill messages from 73 nations.
So that’s the second lesson, perhaps: Instead of reveling in triumphalism, the Americans left tributes to their rival Soviet cosmonauts. And messages of goodwill from around the Earth.
The right stuff, indeed.
We can get mired nowadays in the tribalism of our politics. We too often see one another as enemies instead of as fellow Americans with different points of view. We can become so weighed down by anger and distrust and cynicism that we never look up.
We offer this suggestion: Escape from the heat outside, and the heat of the political talk shows, by spending some time on the NASA website and with the LNP stories this weekend that recall the moon landing. Revisit the time in our history when Americans were focused on a single goal. If you’re too young to remember, ask an older person to tell you the story.
We’ve come together before. We can do so again.
“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,” President Kennedy famously said in September 1962, “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 which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
We need a moonshot aimed at bringing Americans together. We need it not because it would be easy, but because it would be hard — and that’s why it’s so necessary.