Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. It is being celebrated as a technological accomplishment, a triumph of adventure and a reason for American patriotic pride. Tomorrow, during this time of hyper-nationality, take time to remember the moon landing as a touchstone of our shared humanity.
Russian scientists got into space first. The Sputnik satellite orbited the earth and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space while U.S. rockets exploded on the launch pad.
Then John F. Kennedy made a bold pledge in his first year as president. The United States would put a man on the moon and do it within 10 years.
The Apollo program seemed like America’s destiny. “This country was conquered by those who moved forward, and so will space [be],” Kennedy told a Rice University audience in September 1962.
It was also good politics for the time. America’s claims of predominance were a hard sell as long as the Russians kept being first into space. The moon would be the big prize, proof that America was No. 1.
It was a costly prize. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) expenditures took up big chunks of the federal budget. Focusing on the moon helped maintain congressional support.
In September 1963, President Kennedy changed his rhetoric about the Apollo program. The U.S. and Soviet Union could land on the moon together, he told the United Nations.
Kennedy died before his idea of a joint moon landing could be developed. With anti-Soviet sentiments high, the Apollo program went on as before, an American venture with high propaganda value.
Those grainy black and white images of a human being tentatively climbing down a ladder and jumping onto the actual surface of the moon captured the attention and emotions of the whole world. What had been only American became something else.
“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong’s words as he took his first step on the moon exemplified the sense that a human being was actually walking around on another world. The wonder and pride and joy belonged to everyone.
The nation that achieved this first step will not be left out of the history books. Yet, watch that moment from 50 years ago as it’s rebroadcast around the world this weekend. Watch the faces and reactions of people gathered across the globe.
On the moon, everyone is a visitor, an alien, an Earthling. That shared identity is what the moon landing should celebrate.