With the nation as fractured and polarized as it is today, it is hard to imagine it being able to muster the single-minded sense of purpose that led to the successful moon landing 50 years ago on July 20, 1969.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who was alive at that time who was not awestruck when they watched the mighty Saturn V rocket lift off or justifiably proud as they followed the progress of Apollo 11 as it flew nearly a quarter-million miles to the moon.
Once in the moon’s orbit, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left crew member Michael Collins behind to climb into the Lunar Module, a contraption that looked more like a mechanical insect designed in someone’s garage than a highly sophisticated vehicle that would safely land men on the moon and bring them back to their spacecraft.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Armstrong’s famous quote when he stepped onto the moon’s surface, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” masked the patriotic jingoism behind the space race.
That race began in 1957, during the depths of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik. In simple terms, the Russians’ achievement scared the pants off Americans, and the country was still trailing in the race four years later when President John F. Kennedy challenged it to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Although the multi-billion dollar effort achieved its goal with nearly six months to spare, the program had its share of detractors. They argued the money could have been better spent pulling millions of Americans out of poverty instead of exploring the barren moonscape.
While that may have been true, the technology developed for the American space program paid tremendous long-term dividends to the economy. Silicon chips, anyone?
But more than that, thanks to the beautiful photographs the astronauts took of Earth from their perch in their spacecraft, for the first time, we could truly comprehend that Earth is our home planet, one that we can never replace, and one we better learn to take care of.