The meaning of the moon landing, 50 years later | Editorial

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin steps down the ladder to become the second man to walk on the moon. [Neil Armstrong | NASA]
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin steps down the ladder to become the second man to walk on the moon. [Neil Armstrong | NASA]
Published July 18, 2019

Saturday night, look up at the moon. Neil Armstrong's footprints are still there, undisturbed by the passing of half a century. Two-thirds of today's Americans weren't even born when he hopped down the last rung of the lunar module's ladder and quietly declared, "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

Try to think of another time when the entire world could witness history unfold live and in real time — July 20, 1969, at 10:56 p.m. EDT, was one of those rare moments. Kids got to stay up late and forever will remember every detail of the grainy black-and-white footage transmitted from a place that Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, described as a scene of "magnificent desolation." Those same kids could run outside and marvel as they glanced up at the moon, a quarter million miles away, and tried to comprehend that men were actually walking on it. It had been a long journey.

It was the dream of President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, and his assassination draped the venture in hagiography. Yet, even he had wondered privately if it was worth the price.

But in the Cold War era, the race was on, a proxy battle of ideologies — the free world of the Americans and the West versus the Communist world of the Soviets and their satellite nations. The effort indeed was expensive, costlier by a magnitude than even the Manhattan Project in World War II that yielded the atomic bomb. In fact, it was one of the priciest projects in history, and not just in treasure. Three astronauts died in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that threatened the entire program. Still, the United States persisted.

Each generation will tell the story a little differently, adding nuance and seeing the people and events through evolving filters and sensibilities. Newer histories have served to clarify that white test pilots were not the only ones infused with the "right stuff" who got the United States to the moon. There were African-American women such as Katherine Johnson, one of the "hidden figures" who analyzed the trajectory of the first U.S. manned flight and whose later calculations helped Apollo 11's command module rendezvous with the lunar module. There was computer pioneer Margaret Hamilton, an MIT whiz who coined the phrase "software engineering" and wrote the programs that controlled the lunar module. There were men such as Wernher von Braun, who designed the Saturn V moon rocket after making science movies with Walt Disney but who had also been a Nazi who worked for Hitler in pioneering the V-2. In other words, history is complicated.

In fact, through most of the 1960s most Americans doubted the Apollo program was worth the high cost. That changed, if ever briefly, when two men walked on the moon. But trying to put a price on such a seminal achievement is misguided, and the utilitarian justifications miss the point. We didn't go to the moon so that children's shoes could have flaps of Velcro, which was invented earlier anyway. Although the space race altered the trajectory of Florida's economy, we didn't go for reasons of commerce, either. Otherwise, there would be moon colonies today.

We went to the moon, to quote Kennedy's quote of a climber who died trying to reach Mount Everest first, "because it's there."

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Of the estimated 109 billion humans who have ever lived across the tens of thousands of years — and most of them assuredly have gazed at the moon in wonder — only 12 have ever walked there. And none have done so in generations. Right now, the United States can't even send astronauts into space on its own, relying for the time being on the Russians to transport them to the International Space Station. But even 50 years on, only the United States has ever mustered the will and the might to put people on the moon.

And yet it's telling that astronauts on moon missions would stare back at the Big Blue Marble that is Earth, and realize how fragile and precarious is our very existence. And that we must be good stewards of the only planet we have and good companions to our fellow humans. If the space race, which began as a struggle for domination between the Soviets and the Americans, inadvertently taught us the lesson of brother and sisterhood, well, that's a good thing. And if you need a reminder, peek at the moon, and remember how the moon missions taught us to look up. Neil Armstrong's footprints could well outlast humankind itself and are a testament, as the lunar plaque says, that "We came in peace for all mankind."