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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Landing on the moon united America. We need that kind of effort again today

Astronaut Edwin

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin descends steps of Lunar Module ladder as he prepares to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. He had just egressed the Lunar Module. Photo Credit: AP / NEIL A. ARMSTRONG

Have you seen the classic edition that accompanies today’s Newsday?

The headline says it all:

MEN WALK ON THE MOON

If you missed the edition, or if you weren’t around back then, you might not grasp how riveted the nation was the night of July 20, 1969.

For the generations who followed, the first moon landing is a piece of history. For those of us who were alive when Neil Armstrong took that one small step and one giant leap, it was magic.

It was stupendous. It was fantasy morphing into fact before our eyes. It was a nation smashing through the limits of what was possible. It was confirmation of American greatness. It was vanquishment of the Russians.

And it’s difficult to imagine anything like that happening again.

That’s not to say we aren’t still doing great things. Creating the internet was big. Inventing the smartphone was big. Developing driverless cars is big. Mapping the human genome and using it to devise gene therapies is huge.

But none of them is quite the same thing.

The moonshot was a national project. Almost everyone was invested in it. We all had felt the collective sting when the Russians got to space before we did. So in 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an audacious challenge to be first to the moon, a race we had to win to reassert our superiority as technological leader of the world.

Long Island had a special place in that endeavor. The engineers at Grumman Aircraft in Bethpage designed, built and tested the lunar modules that would land six times on the moon. And when The Eagle became the first to touch down, Long Islanders joined their fellow Americans in celebration, as did much of the world.

What kind of project would the nation rally around now? The wall? Please.

Would we all get behind something with huge benefits for large swathes of the country, like bullet trains to reduce travel times and increase productivity? Would we feel the same pride about a manned spaceship to Mars? Has there been a national outpouring of support for finding a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s? The work is underway, but are we all in it together?

Where’s the national vision? We have brilliant scientists and imaginative entrepreneurs and they’re working hard, but our political leaders are proposing big cutbacks in public funding for research and crackdowns on visas for the kind of talented visitors who always helped fuel our innovative spirit.

Is it too simplistic to say that absent a powerfully menacing archenemy who seems to put life in some precarious balance, it’s harder to wrap ourselves up in a great common cause? Do we need to feel the kind of fear that gripped us after Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to unite?

In some ways we seem more fragmented now than in 1969. We used to watch the same handful of TV stations; now we have hundreds. We got our news from three networks and the local newspaper; now our sources seem endless. Our politics are polarized, our social media feeds balkanized.

But we were breaking apart back then, too. The ’60s were tumultuous. The fight for civil rights wracked the country, and the struggle continued even after the passage of landmark legislation. The decade saw the assassinations of JFK, his brother Bobby, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. As the moon landing approached, the movement against the Vietnam War was in full swing, with protesters and police battling in the streets of Chicago a year earlier at the Democratic National Convention.

These, too, are disruptive times. But are we smarter now about how to spend our money? Or too wary about recent economic busts? Too timid to flex our imaginations together? Or too divided to join hands?

In 1969, we needed a moonshot.

Maybe we do again.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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