Aug. 28, 2012
Astronaut Neil Armstrong always modestly viewed himself, and preferred to be viewed by others, as the anchor man in a relay race. That race began in 1957. The Soviets had their own reasons for going to the Moon. Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist Party boss, had pursued a policy of de-Stalinization. Just as the Soviet Unions dictator Josef Stalin had airbrushed all the other leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution except Lenin and himself from photographs in Soviet histories, now Khrushchev was trying to blot out the memory of the man who had ruled Russia and her captive nations with an iron fist for nearly three decades.
Khrushchev was desperate to find another way to legitimize the dictatorship of Communism in the USSR and in its Eastern European satellites. He found it in space.
In 1957, Khrushchev stunned the world with the first earth satellite. It was known as Sputnik. And Soviet prestige was enhanced by the fact that their leadership in space seemed to be assured for another decade. Meanwhile, the U.S. space program proceeded in fits and starts, with some embarrassing explosions on the launch pad broadcast to a watching world. Kaputnik! one tabloid jibed at one of our failed attempts.
When, in 1961, Khrushchev could boast another first in space, he crowed over the orbital flight of Maj. Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was the first human in space. Gagarin came back to earth and gave a press conference viewed around the world. What did you see up there, one western reporter asked. Net boga [No God], the cocky young Soviet cosmonaut responded.
More seriously, Marxist historian Zheya Sveltivlova provided the Communist rationale for space exploration: When man conquers the universe, he will learn to believe in himself. It will simply be ridiculous to rely on any force other than himself. People who now believe in God will reject him. Such belief wont be logical or natural. Man will be stronger than God.
Young John F. Kennedy was not willing to let the Soviets win the race in space. He peppered his scientific advisors from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with questions. He had promised to get America moving again in his race for president. His wafer-thin victory in the 1960 election made him acutely aware that his re-election would hinge on his performance in office.
With the Soviets besting us again and again in space, Kennedy sensed that he could lose the 1964 election if his much-touted quality of vigor (which he invariably pronounced vigah) could be lampooned as failing like one of those collapsing U.S. rockets.
Kennedys advisers read him the grim news: The Soviets will be first to put a man in space. They will be first to have a man walk in space. They will set records for length of time in orbit. In those days, scientists told politicians the truth. They didnt sugarcoat it.
Frustrated, Kennedy demanded to know where could the U.S. beat the USSR. Well, word came back. We could get to the Moon first.
Barely four months into his term, President Kennedy went before Congress and committed this nation to going to the Moon. We have the full text of this address from the John F. Kennedy Library. The entire speech is well worth watching. But it is at the 3:11 mark that the president offers the stunning news that America will go to the Moon with the full speed of freedom.
In a single, brilliant stroke, President Kennedy changed the space race from a 100-meter dash to a marathon. And he had little doubt who would win that marathon.
Soon, Kennedy was assassinated and Khrushchev was ousted in a Kremlin coup. But the space race went on.
President Lyndon B. Johnson had been one of the biggest boosters of space within the Kennedy administration, but Johnson never once gave the country the kind of reasons for going to the Moon, the poetic inspiration, that young Jack Kennedy did. In one of his last speeches, Kennedy had said, America has thrown its hat over the wall of space and we had no choice but to go after it.
Lacking any of Kennedys rhetorical elan, Johnson doggedly pursued space. It meant hundreds of thousands of jobsmost of them in Johnsons home state of Texas. And it meant Johnson could rack up another accomplishment alongside his list of legislative victories.
Few saw in the race to the Moon a spiritual quest. The decade of the 1960s that had begun with such promise saw a deepening skepticism about American purpose and achievements. And, as our involvement in Vietnam deepened, a corrosive cynicism gripped the land. Riots in our major cities caused many Americans to question the stability of our institutions.
Some even questioned religion itself. Village atheists had always been with us, but now the atheizers of a global village had ready access to a national media that was less hesitant about casting shadows of its own doubts. The press evangelized for unbelief.
The liberal news weekly TIME asked the loaded question: Is God Dead? The decade began with President Kennedy saying here on earth, Gods work must truly be our own. By mid-decade, in the wake of Kennedys horrific assassination, things began to come apart at the seams. In 1967, the summer of love, the media celebrated drugs, casual sex, and an increasingly hedonistic counterculture.
All through these years, however, the crewcut young men of the Apollo Space Program labored away on the goal that President Kennedy had set out for them: They trained for the ride of their lives. They were headed for the Moon.
Leftist writer Norman Mailer thought the race for the Moon was a typical example of American hubris. The WASP [white Anglo-Saxon Protestant] mind can go infinite distances, he sneered, because it is so narrow.
Norman Rockwell America, however, never lost its love for John F. Kennedys bold adventure. As the U.S. began to pull ahead of the USSR in space, there was a feeling that at least this much was going well in America.
Then, shockingly, three astronauts of Apollo I died on the launch pad in Florida. On January 27, 1967, veteran test pilots Gus Grissom, Roger Chafee, and Ed White were burned to death, unable to exit their oxygen-enriched spacecraft as a spark from an exposed electrical wire ignited an inferno.
President Johnson did not immediately come on the air to soothe a worried nationas Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush would memorably do following fatal shuttle disasters.
Still, the Apollo program went on. John F. Kennedys goal of putting a man on the Moon by the end of this decade seemed an impossible dream. It was as if America were a miler who had fallen at the 34-mile mark and broken a leg.
Despite this tragedy, American ingenuity and determination rallied. NASA completely re-engineered the Apollo spacecraft and prepared to meet Kennedys deadline.
Just two and one half years later, Astronaut Neil Armstrong thrilled the world as he announced the Eagle has landed. Only afterward would Americans learn that Armstrong, the highly skilled pilot, had had to guide the lunar lander in its final descent to the Moon, overruling a computer landing program that could have put the spidery spacecraft on uneven ground. That could have risked takeoff for a return to Earth.
We seem today not to know what to do with the great victory achieved by these amazing young astronauts of fifty years ago. President Obama told NASA chief Chuck Bolden his new mission was to make Muslims feel good about their achievements in science and technology. As for our return to the Moon, Mr. Obama would have us hitch a ride with the Russians.
America this week mourns the loss of that brave pioneer from Ohio, Neil Armstrong.
He had announced to a breathless humanity thats one small step for Man, a giant leap for Mankind. Neil Armstrong, honored for his courage and devotion to duty, died over the weekend at age 82.
While Neil Armstrong was taking that small step, his fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin was busy, too. Aldrin was celebrating communion with his Houston Episcopal parish. He poured out wine and consumed the wafer as he read from the Book of John: I am the vine and you are the branches…You can do nothing without me.
Perhaps this would be a good time to pause and thank God for the service of these astronauts and for the flag of freedom they left on the Moon. Neil Armstrongs family suggests we might honor him by winking at the Moon. That is a fitting tribute to the man who first walked there, and who beckons us still along the path he blazed to the future.