SALT LAKE CITY — America's most ambitious and perhaps most unifying project in the last half-century reached fruition July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped out of a lunar module and onto the moon. As Michael Collins orbited in the Apollo 11 command module for 21 hours, Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin gathered moon rock samples, planted the American flag and even managed to snag some ZZZs close to a quarter-million miles from Earth.
What Armstrong described famously as "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" has been hailed as an unusually unifying event for a nation in the throes of great strife. It was also a massive undertaking. The Apollo program cost $25.4 billion in 1973 money, according to NASA's report that year to Congress. Financial calculators translate that to roughly $144.3 billion in 2017 dollars. Hundreds of thousands of people worked for NASA and the contractors and subcontractors and other businesses providing support.
But there was no way to calculate the value of the national unity reported as people gathered around their TVs to witness the moon landing. Thomas Walton, who as a young journalist covered the event from NASA's press auditorium, wrote this week in the Post-Gazette of seeing reporters cheer: "For an instant, they were not Catholics. They were not Jews. They were not Muslims. They were not white or black. For a second in time, they were not burdened by the expectations or demands of prejudice. I saw a reporter from Israel and another from Saudi Arabia embrace in excitement. They were two human beings sharing and celebrating a moment of global humanity not seen in the five decades since."
Some would say the strife of the 1960s has an apt parallel in 2019 America, sparking speculation: Would an undertaking of that magnitude be possible in this fractured political landscape? Is America more divided than in the tumultuous '60s — or could we unite behind a grand feat like walking on the moon? If so, what would that feat be?
Republican Utah Congressman Rob Bishop thinks it's possible. "In 1969, when America tuned its collective television set to view Neil Armstrong take his one small step onto the surface of the moon, the nation was united in celebration. This unity came during a time of otherwise great division. To try and orchestrate another such unifying moment may be naïve, but we can certainly hope," he told the Deseret News.
Tim Chambless, associate professor/adjunct of political science at the University of Utah, would like to think so, too. He’s more skeptical, though he vividly recalls the pride he felt watching.
“When the U.S. landed men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth, people everywhere on our planet were in awe of American intelligence and know-how. America was seen to be the best place to be," he said. "Today, that has changed.”
A different turmoil
The United States during the 1960s was embroiled in both peaceful protests and riots, with opposing sides polarized around the Vietnam War, the draft, civil rights, women’s rights and other causes. Social mores were shifting, creating a wedge between generations. Hippies were experimenting with drugs and “free love.” And stretching back to before the decade’s start, the eerie spectre of potential Russian military and political domination loomed like a dark cloud over America.
President John F. Kennedy called Americans to the moon race in 1961 with the goal to get an American to the moon ahead of all other countries and then bring him home safely. "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. ... But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon — if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
The next year in Houston, he sealed the pitch. "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Look at any sizeable group of older Americans and you're likely to find someone who was part of America’s moon shot or knew personally someone who was. The effort directly involved more than 600,000 people whose jobs gave them a role — some very small, some life-alteringly large.
Parrish Nelson Hirasaki’s role was important, though she was just 23 when America parked on the Sea of Tranquility. She’d been recruited from Duke University by TRW, an aerospace contractor at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, earning her master's in mechanical engineering while working for the space program.
A thermal analyst, Hirasaki's job was to predict whether the command module heat shield and layers below it would get too hot re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Later, when a damaged Apollo 13 returned to Earth on an untested trajectory, she calculated a "window" of angles that would be safe thermally.
“As you know, I did not screw that up,” she said recently from her home in Culver City, California. (Her husband John was also part of the effort. As the project engineer quarantined with the Apollo 11 crew when it returned to be sure they hadn’t unwittingly brought back anything dangerous, he was among the first people to handle rocks from the moon here on Earth.)
Americans had long been intrigued by the moon they saw from their porches, seemingly unreachable, though many felt a longing to do just that. “It was a great adventure that really excited people,” she said. She remembers a Disney cartoon character even a decade before the moon landing “flailing wildly” in zero gravity, because no one knew what would happen. “Space travel was a step-by-step process with monkeys and dogs being the first astronauts."
Midvale resident Ted Meeker was a lab technician with Aerojet General in Sacramento, working with solid propellants, when the company won a contract to build a new type of space-bound engine that could restart multiple times, allowing the astronauts to return to Earth.
He'd planned to become a dentist but was sidetracked into the growing aeronautics industry by the need to support his family. The space program provided other career twists: His company sent him to learn all about metal, and his team did quality checks and failure analysis of all the metal hardware on the new engine, etching and stressing it to see what would make it fail. All their calculations were made with physical tools, such as slide rulers.
Though the company at one point had 23,000 employees, that didn’t dull the sense of urgency Meeker's bosses instilled – or the sense of mission. They were racing the clock and the Russians.
Chambless, too, had a close link to the moon landing — an aunt and uncle who worked in the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. "They felt they were members of a NASA team and they shared a national spirit of teamwork and achievement," he said of the pair, who now live in assisted-living in Millcreek. "They are still very proud of their involvement in America's space program."
Faith in the future
The 50th anniversary of the moon landing has sparked renewed curiosity about America's future in space. But it has also raised questions about unity and division and whether Americans could unite behind a magnificent shared purpose.
How people see their own potential is key, said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
"One of the reasons for the unanimity, I think, was that most people were more hopeful about the future,” she said of the 1960s. “They thought their lives and their country's commitment to their well-being were on an upward trajectory despite growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and divisions over the civil rights movement."
People had both “greater trust” government would use its “investment in this awesome technology” to benefit mankind — and greater faith in scientists, she said. “All combined, of course, with huge admiration for the courage of the astronauts.”
That was also before the internet and social media amplified the voices of those who doubt man even reached the moon. A 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling found 7 percent of Americans are convinced the moon landing was fake news.
"Today, people are much more suspicious of government and industry's motives and potential misuses of technology," said Coontz.
In the 1960s, America was rebuilding after the war, said Oakland, California, psychologist Joshua Coleman, who also believes optimism was greater then.
Uniting for a grand cause is "sort of hard to imagine now because it seems like for every ambitious goal, there’s an equal counterforce of people who want to profit either politically or financially or in some other way, who are opposing that goal,” he said. “So a lot of things that seem sort of common-sensical pretty quickly get opposed by some powerful entity, left or right, and it gets used then to perpetuate some kind of political, religious, financial or other agenda. At this point, I’m sort of depressingly skeptical about our capacity as a society to do that.”
Even in the '60s, Hirasaki said, not everyone supported the moon effort. Some people wanted to see the money used for social programs instead. Even among some supporters, ardor cooled over time.
“There was plenty of opposition to NASA's budget after a couple of moon missions. It wouldn't have been approved in 1970, and the Apollo program was suddenly cancelled in 1972,” she said. She subsequently worked 31 years in the energy industry before she was wooed back to aerospace after the 2003 shuttle crash for her thermal expertise.
America would not have reached the moon without national commitment and a plan strong enough to withstand challenges like the daunting cost or the death of the Apollo 1 three-man crew in a 1967 fire while practicing for launch. It also required “an inspirational vision articulated by America's first president born in the 20th century," said Chambless.
And if the divided society of the 1960s could come together, perhaps it's not an impossible goal now.
"Today, arguably, America needs another national purpose that will benefit the world community," he said.
President Trump suggested as recently as July 4 that planting the American flag on Mars would fit the bill. His administration wants NASA to get America back to the moon by 2024 as a step toward that goal.
Rep. Bishop agrees, seeing benefit to his country and his home state. “The possibility of a manned mission to Mars is rapidly approaching. A giant leap onto the surface of Mars would undoubtedly unite our national attention. A mission like this could also serve to further tighten the bond that Utahns have with one another as the industrious Beehive state is home to so many of the companies working on the cutting edge of technologies crucial for a manned Mars mission."
Bishop, a former high school history and government teacher, predicts that “when America first walks on Mars, the whole world will stop and watch.”
Some think other causes are more pressing, but are skeptical Americans can summon enough unity to tackle them.
"A big ambitious and important goal would be to make the United States carbon neutral in its emissions," said Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherin. "But sadly, climate change is too politically charged for Americans to unite around combatting it."
Hirasaki also mentioned environmental efforts, saying she hopes Americans will “eventually get behind climate change solutions. ... I do not believe the public would get behind an expensive space venture. I wouldn't. I think the current migration of space projects to private industry is appropriate.”
Chambless considers a “Marshall-type economic plan to improve the quality of life in this country or elsewhere" a worthy effort to address global poverty.
Coleman, however, is not optimistic Americans could unite for a single cause. “We’ve become much more identity-focused,” he said, noting the internet has led people to divisive stances that can spread and escalate rapidly.
He pointed to social inequality as a dividing factor, citing studies showing people in countries with more social inequality, like China and the United States, are less happy than in countries like Norway, Germany, Japan and Sweden, where socioeconomic gaps are smaller.
“It’s hard for me to feel very optimistic we could unite. It seems like it would almost have to be something like an invasion from outer space that invited the whole world having to team up together,” he noted wryly.
Americans are even more polarized than before they united after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said Coleman. It is a “good question, if 9/11 happened today, how quickly it would become politicized in a more negative and divisive way? Would we unite now? Maybe not," he said.
Meeker sounds wistful. “I think it would be very nice if we did unite,” he said. “I just don’t know what it would be.”
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the shuttle accident happened in 2002. It occurred in 2003.