When Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon 50 years ago, he cast it as “one giant leap for mankind.”
His words echoed those on the plaque his Apollo 11 crew left on the moon:
WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND
As our country and others wield shields of nationalism, as America cedes its role as global leader, as our president widens divisions at home and abroad, it is natural to wonder whether such sentiments would be possible today, and whether they would resonate around the world.
But that aspiration — to serve as representatives of all humanity — was forged under conditions not so different from those of today.
On July 21, 1969, our nation was riven by cultural and generational divides centered on the civil rights struggle and anti-Vietnam War protests. Just as President Donald Trump’s political strategy revolves around dividing the country over issues like immigration and race, that also was the playbook of President Richard Nixon.
Then, as now, our nation was uneasy. But while many today feel a gnawing fear that authoritarianism is creeping into America’s marrow, the Apollo space program soldiered on against a backdrop of real turmoil in our streets.
In the late 1960s, riots tore apart Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Washington and Baltimore. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated in 1968, and Chicago police beat protesters at the Democratic National Convention. Just before Apollo 11, students at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley clashed with police, and the Stonewall riots in New York City launched the gay rights movement. Nearly 1,000 American troops were dying each month in Vietnam. Shortly after Apollo 11, Charles Manson’s clan killed nine people in Southern California and the Woodstock music festival drew 400,000 counterculturists to a farm in upstate New York.
A popular bumper sticker of the time, “America, Love It or Leave It,” presaged Trump’s recent charge to four liberal congresswomen and frequent critics that they should leave the country if they don’t love it.
While some sought change in 1969, others embraced the status quo and feared the future, much like today. That unease was reflected in our culture.
The year’s top song was the bubblegum confection “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies. But the No. 1 tune as Apollo 11 lifted off was “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, a song about humanity overtaken by the technology it created. Sound familiar? Side-by-side among top-grossing films were the musical “Hello, Dolly!” and “Easy Rider,” the counterculture epic featuring drugs, free love and motorcycles. One popular book was Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” about a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism brought to Earth by a satellite that lands in Arizona.
Apollo 11 did not cure what ailed us. But it showed we could persevere despite our divisions. And it served as a unifying moment — however temporary.
The mission was spawned by the Cold War and was President John F. Kennedy’s audacious answer to the Soviet Union putting the first man in space. Newsday’s editorial board, writing in 1962, urged the nation to support JFK’s call while warning that the high cost would require sacrifices by all Americans in the form of higher taxes and fewer public works projects, concluding: “Do we have the courage to face up to the challenge?” When the lunar module — the pride of Long Island, built in Bethpage by Grumman Corp. — finally landed on the moon, more than 500 million people were watching on TV.
It was part of a long run of successes that led Americans to look at government itself as an innovator. The programs that lifted us out of the Great Depression, the Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II, and the interstate highway system started in the 1950s were monumental achievements. Besides putting men on the moon and bringing moon rocks back to Earth to study, the space program also generated slews of technological advances, like memory foam, freeze-dried food, space blankets, cochlear implants, flameproof firefighter suits and solar panels.
Now, many Americans look elsewhere for solutions. Private business spends three times as much on research and development as the federal government, and companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin shoulder part of the space exploration burden.
But once again, a foreign adversary — China this time — threatens to overtake us technologically. Once again, a presidential administration wants to go to the moon, and then to Mars, though Trump’s directive lacks the focus and urgency that underscored JFK’s charge. Once again, America must prioritize its spending amid a familiar debate pitting social programs against defense spending. Can we afford to fund another moonshot? Can we afford not to?
We’re still curious about the heavens. We’ve made great strides via our unmanned space program, flying ever deeper into the universe and sending back reams of data and photos. But we still have questions that need answers. Can we muster the effort to get them?
Buzz Aldrin, who was with Armstrong in that lunar lander, tweeted last week that 400,000 people helped get him to the moon and back: “Together, we Americans can do anything!”
Such unity might seem like a dream now, much as it might have seemed like a dream then. But Apollo 11 also taught us that when we dream, we achieve.