A decade before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the lunar surface, a popular children’s book was published with a title that sounded like a promise:
“You Will Go to the Moon.”
The illustrations showed a young boy’s trip in a rocket to a space station, to a lunar lander and finally a moon base. He went. Pretty soon, you would go too.
Moon trips had been predicted and depicted for centuries, but they were fantasies about green cheese, alien encounters, post-human societies. It would be different for baby boomers. They grew up believing they actually would go to the real moon, often, routinely, as the natural result of an optimistic and audacious human spirit; or perhaps as a patriotic demonstration of American superiority. Or both.
By the time John F. Kennedy had become president, though, the Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. into space. In response, Kennedy pledged that this nation would go to the moon, either in partnership with the Soviets for all humankind, or in competition.
“We choose to go to the moon!” Kennedy famously said, and to do other great things “not because they are easy but because they are hard, and because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
The world was at turns transfixed and ambivalent. The quest for the moon was the greatest and most expensive adventure ever undertaken by a government. It was the last thing we needed: a diversion of attention and resources from solving serious human problems like war, racial strife and poverty. And yet it was simultaneously a remedy to those problems, generating knowledge, technologies and opportunities for new thinking. It was the best of competition, mounted without military combat; and yet it was itself a sort of combat, extolling American virtues, sending active or recently retired Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine officers into space. It was a martial exercise, a science project, an engineering marvel.
It was the apogee of the arrogance and exclusiveness of white men, and yet it provided the most consequential opportunities in science and technology in the U.S. for women and people of color.
U.S. scientists and engineers are now working on a human trip to Mars, and it may happen. Meanwhile, they have extended the human reach into space with wondrous rovers, probes and other instruments unimaginable a half century ago. Orbiting telescopes unlock the mysteries of the universe. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” is traveling (along with music from Mexico, Japan, Zaire and a dozen other places) in interstellar space. There are plans to send a drone through the atmosphere of the Saturn moon Titan.
Remarkable as they are, these robotic voyages lack the drama or the romance of human spaceflight, and may fall short of the implied promise that each of us, any of us, would one day fly to the moon.
But all of us did go, in a sense, a half century ago.
We went to the moon. We said we would do it, and we did it. Ahead of deadline, if perhaps not under budget. We did it. And if we did that, surely we can do anything.