On July 20, 1969 at 20:17 UTC, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle touched down in The Sea of Tranquility. Six hours later, on July 21 at 02:56:16 UTC (9:56 p.m., July 20, CDT), Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. From the launch at Kennedy Space Center four days earlier to the splashdown and recovery in the North Pacific Ocean on July 24, I followed the proceedings with wonder and amazement. Nothing in my imagination could compete with the true-life magnificence of rocketing three humans to the moon, two of whom actually walked on its surface, and bringing them safely home.
It was a breathtaking endeavor, sparked by the words of John F. Kennedy eight years earlier when he delivered a speech before a Joint Session of Congress:
… I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
The US already had a space program when he spoke those words; for that matter, there were plans in place to put a man on the moon, under the auspices of the Apollo project. But it was JFK who galvanized the collective American imagination and pried the money from Congress to realize such an audacious goal.
It took, in a word, leadership. The astronauts at the time all had military backgrounds. Many of them had leadership qualities; so, too, did the top echelon of NASA administrators and contractors involved in what was by any metric a formidable, Herculean effort. Nevertheless, without JFK’s unique ability to harness the nation’s imagination and set a shared goal, it’s unlikely the United States would’ve achieved putting a man on the moon before the Soviet Union did so, which was, after all, the crux of the urgency.
That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.
—Neil Armstrong, upon setting foot on the moon
Even though everyone was fully aware at the time that the “Space Race” was a Cold War contest between two superpowers possessed of diametrically opposed ideologies, when the US succeeded there was global jubilation. An estimated 400 million people witnessed the event, identifying with this achievement as something uniquely human and existing above country, race, or creed. It truly was for all mankind.
Less than 12 years later came another phrase, from another president that shaped another generation.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.
So spoke President Ronald Reagan during his first inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1981. Context brings meaning to all presidential pronouncements, to be sure, but this phrase came as a clarion call to those who wished for diminished Federal power and unfettered free markets. Ever since, the nation has marched away from long-term stakeholder value towards short-term shareholder profits. The social safety net has been chipped away, while income inequality has exploded and ushered in a new Gilded Age. We’ve become slaves to technologies that once seemed to promise empowerment. Our post-Cold War hubris led us into military misadventures abroad as cities lay dying at home.
It would be easy to blame our current president for the present state of affairs; instead, one could argue we all suffer under the malaise of victimhood, which, by brutal and strange irony, is not actually our fault, individually speaking. What’s more, this victimhood is but a symptom of powerlessness in the face of market forces tearing our society to shreds. As President Bill Clinton’s brilliant advisor James Carville quipped, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Everyone knows it. The .00001 percent know it. The homeless know it. You and I know it. Something’s just not right. And, to put it in so many words, our society has inexorably moved from a shared sense of purpose into the individualism of winner-take-all capitalism. The fact is, private concerns can’t fix the problem simply because they are the problem. The challenges we face can only be overcome through our collective action; this implies, of course, that we must participate in our own governance by choosing effective leaders.
Our Federal Republic was designed to function, ideally at least, from the ground up. Note that our opponent in the Space Race used a top-down approach towards government. So does it not then behoove us to pay attention to and participate in what’s happening at the local level of governance? How can we expect to have visionary leaders if there is no incubator at the local level?
JFK wasn’t perfect and neither were the ’60s. Reagan wasn’t evil, either. He truly believed in the economic policies that guided his administration. Even so, it doesn’t matter because here we are. So what are we going to do about it? If you’re concerned about the direction this community — this city, state, and country — is moving, then vote.
The only way to reach for the stars is the same way we put a man on the moon.