It was a promise that seemed bold even in a bold time. The title of the president’s remarks to Congress on May 25, 1961, was informed by an anxiety that the nations of the world were weighing a choice between democracy and communism: “Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs.” One such need was victory in the space race. And so came President John F. Kennedy’s landmark announcement that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
He was, he knew, asking for something that, if not impossible to accomplish, was at least highly treacherous. The ensuing years brought the murder of the president who spoke those words, the morass of Vietnam, the tumult of the civil-rights movement, the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and finally, in November 1968, the election of the man JFK had defeated in 1960, Richard Nixon. By the time the decade was out it seemed, to use a phrase of Yeats that has often been invoked in this context, that the center would not hold.
Yet amid all the chaos and crises, thanks to an extraordinary effort of will on the part of the political and scientific communities, the space program continued to move apace. It was one of the greatest government-led projects in history. It would have not have happened without a commitment of public resources and a marshaling, too, of private enterprise in terms of contractors and expertise. The success of the Apollo program, in other words, required each aspect of the American economy to do its part. We have seen nothing like it since; in fact, the hostility between public and private has grown so thick that we as a nation are largely paralyzed in our ability to work together to encourage technological innovation and economic growth.
All of this came to mind this weekend with the news of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon. The Apollo program has never had a chronicler who could do for it what Tom Wolfe did so brilliantly for the Mercury missions in The Right Stuff, but perhaps the iconic image of Armstrong’s landing, and his immortal words, could point us toward the future rather than the past.
When the presidential candidates — or, really, any of us — talk about the American future, about our frustration with the direction of the country, it’s worth remembering Neil Armstrong and the spirit of cooperation and of mission and of perseverance that allowed him to take that One Giant Leap for Mankind. We did such things once. We ought to be able to do them again.