Fifty years ago, three American men hurtled through the blackness of space, aiming for a rock one-quarter the size of the planet they just left. They rode the most powerful machine man has ever built, traveled faster than man has ever traveled, and within a few days they would complete the greatest enterprise man has ever launched.
The crescendo of American spirit during the decade of the space race has no parallel in modern history, but is it replicable? Can there be more than one American moonshot?
American fortitude responds with a resounding “yes.” But while daily life will ever move the country forward, basking in the kind of unity that captured the country on July 20, 1969, requires a few criteria.
From a geopolitical perspective, the space race was about beating an enemy. The Soviet Union was both a physical threat to the country and a symbol of oppression in the free world. Naturally, fear gripped the country — if the Soviets could conquer space, what next?
Maybe that’s what catapulted Americans into the race, but it’s not what kept them there. Persevering after long nights, stumbles and failures wasn’t the work of fear but of loyalty and service. Worry gave way to a nobler motivation: duty.
The NASA missions were a literal manifestation of President John F. Kennedy’s charge to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and pilots sacrificed untold numbers of hours, and some even sacrificed their lives, to accomplish the task Kennedy established.
Their service begat humility — a quality vital for success, especially since the U.S. was losing the race. Badly. Soviets successfully launched the first orbital satellite. They were first to put a man in orbit and were first to perform a space walk. Meanwhile, bureaucracy and setbacks hampered America’s progress.
For the U.S., it was a decade of firsts. Nobody knew how to fly a rocket, dock in space or land on the moon. Mission Control bumbled along and learned as it went, and only humility could teach its willing pupils and lift the country from each failure to try again.
Neither service nor humility would have mattered much, though, were it not for Kennedy’s leadership. Just months after taking office, he declared to Congress, “This nation 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.” There could be no doubt what was expected of the country. The goal was measurable and precise, and it was powerful enough to carry the work forward after the president’s death two years later.
As sure as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, this much is true: America’s next moonshot won’t be conceived in arrogance or bombast, but in genuine leadership. It can only be accomplished by a humble American populace willing to put country before party and duty over self. Without those qualities, attempts at greatness won’t be cut out for front page news. With them, we’ll be celebrating — with awe — human achievement 50 years later and beyond.