Moon Shot? Yesterday’s News

This week’s Courier Herald column:

45 years ago last Sunday, man first walked on the moon.  I was 24 days old at the time so I can’t claim to have immediately understood the importance of the event.  Arguably, it was our country’s finest hour for a singular national effort.  By all accounts, on July 20th 1969 we were one nation. And we could do anything we could set our minds to.

We went back to the moon five more times between then and December 1972.  Since then all of humanity has only been able to gaze upward to make sure it’s still there.  We haven’t been back.  No other country has even tried.

Our country has seen a lot of other events since the Apollo 17 mission that have taken a whack at that national pride.  An unceremonious end to the Vietnam War.  The gas crises and Iran hostages of the 70’s.  Two wars in Iraq and an ongoing one in Afghanistan.  An internet bubble and a housing bubble.  The bursting of those bubbles.  Any many, many things in between.

We had a President resign because his own party told him he was about to be impeached with their support.  We had another impeached but remain in office because one party decided that they could bring a legal case on technical merit without first ensuring that the other party – and more importantly – the American people were prepared for such a verdict and consequent actions.

We’ve seen a Congress that could cooperate because members and their families lived in Washington DC, where they had to work, eat, and live alongside those form the other side of the aisle.  And, perhaps more importantly for civility, their spouses had to live alongside each other as well, with their kids also attending school together.  We’ve seen that Washington fade away as members no longer wish to be viewed as part of the DC that they control.

We’ve seen a nation where neighbors used to know their neighbors now take advantage of the post-space race technology to have satellite and internet bring millions of people into our lives upon demand.  We, amazingly, show equal ability to shut out our own neighbors whom we work, eat, and live alongside.

45 years ago, we used the cutting edge of all technology available to bring our country together like it had never had before, and likely never will be again.  A popular internet meme says that the Apollo Astronauts had less technology in their spacecraft than each of us have in our smartphone. What they used to visit another world and bring us together, we use to create and reinforce virtual worlds, keeping those who disagree with us apart.

We once came together to put all of our technological might to show that our nation could do the impossible.  It seems that since that time, we’ve more often than not let that same technology divide us into groups of similar disposition.

In one of life’s spectacular ironies, the space program that unified our country was built on fear and rivalry of the Soviet Union.  We now have an international space station with Americans in orbit supplied by Russian Soyuz rockets.  Our space program, born of cold war rivalries, may be the last place where appearances suggest that America and the Russians can put past conflict behind us.

Here on earth, it is another form of flight that currently captures our attention.  It’s that of a Boeing 777.  It is that of a Buk M1 missile system.  The two are once again reminding Americans that the world is a dangerous place.  And once again, it’s looking like Russia is playing the role of agitator.

I’m sure the conversations on the Space Station have been…interesting this week.  But it’s not like they can go anywhere to avoid the conflict.  They’re living together as close and dependent on each other as any humans alive today.  Conflict is a luxury for those of us on the ground to handle.

There was a time when the space program was able to bring those of in this country together as one.  It was coupled with a heightened sense of international turmoil.

The conflict is back.  The unity is not.

We are now a nation separated largely by the technology that brings us together. And, at least for now, one that is more preoccupied with accentuating our differences than focusing on harnessing our potential.

Answers to this problem are difficult.  Let us pray that it does not require another cold war – or worse, a hot one – to figure it out.


  1. Three Jack says:

    Being a bit older than you Charlie, I remember being in the car with the rest of my family returning from the lake when we heard the news of the moon landing. It would be a few hours before Neil Armstrong spoke those most famous words, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’.

    I think the biggest difference between then and now with regard to national unity is a total lack of respected leadership. JFK first announced that America would land on the moon 8 years prior to Apollo 11 successfully fulfilling this impossible accomplishment. We don’t have leaders like JFK who asked for individual sacrifice in pursuit of a larger goal that would instill a sense of patriotic pride in all of us. Instead we regrettably are left with a bunch of folks acting as our leaders who are more interested in self-adulation than national accomplishment.

  2. Raleigh says:

    Unity? The moon shots did capture the imagination of many but it was far from some transcendental experience. There were more than a few problems in the world and at home. Here we had Vietnam War protest, Race riots, even protest against spending money on the space program. Who lead us after Kennedy? LBJ, Tricky Dick, and Gerald Ford. Those presidents were shown plenty of respect weren’t they? It would have been just as bad for Kennedy had he not been assassinated . We realized many benefits from the space program but this idea of unity was not something I saw.

  3. Jon Lester says:

    Now we have an administration determined to ruin space cooperation and every other benefit of better relations with Russia, all for the sake of what must be a small subset of the 1% who have a vested interest in getting their way at everyone else’s expense.

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