July 16, 2009 marks the fortieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, which led four days later to perhaps the signature American accomplishment of the twentieth century, the landing at the Sea of Tranquility by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Armstrong’s famous “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap of mankind,” a mere eight years after John Kennedy had announced the goal of putting a man on the moon. NASA is marking its greatest achievement by streaming over the internet the recording of the communications between Aldrin, Armstrong, and command module pilot Michael Collins and Mission Control, at exactly the same time and date it was broadcast in 1969, beginning at 6:32 am CDT on July 16 and ending at 11:51 am CDT on July 24, covering the period from two hours before liftoff to splashdown and the recovery of the crew by pilots from the USS Hornet. (Those who are interested may listen here).
Although I don’t have a distinct memory of Apollo 11, I do remember watching—at home, at my grandparents’, and at school—Saturn Vs lifting off from the Florida coast, astronauts walking and riding on the moon, and astronauts splashing down in the Pacific after returning to earth. I was mildly interested, but I was hardly an aficionado of the space program. In a way, it all seemed perfectly normal: of course Americans were accomplishing things no one had ever done. Isn’t that what Americans always did? Isn’t that what we would always do?
I was reminded of those feelings when business took me near Cape Canaveral over a year ago. Having time to spare, I visited the portion of the Visitor Center at the Kennedy Space Center devoted to the lunar landings, which features a Saturn V, a recreation of mission control at Cape Kennedy featuring the consoles and other equipment used in 1969, and large reproductions of the logos of each of the Apollo missions hanging proudly from the ceiling. It’s a wonderful monument to American achievement. Unexpectedly, I found myself moved and wishing we could recover some of what we had in 1969, when American achievement seemed so natural.
Although Americans are still capable of great achievements, they no longer seem part of our birthright. How many watching as Armstrong took his famous step would have believed that, 40 years later, America would essentially be broke, deeply in debt to a country whose citizens spent 1969 adulating history’s greatest mass murderer and actively trying to destroy their country’s traditions and culture? And one of the reasons for this stunning reversal of fortune is the American cultural revolution that was raging even as the Apollo astronauts were landing on the moon.
Those men grew up in a country that believed that most obstacles could be overcome, and that those that could not be overcome should be accepted with quiet dignity; that valued excellence; and that saw its own history as preeminently a story of achievement. All of this was called into question in the ‘60s. The contrast between the stoicism and resolve of the Apollo astronauts, and the tawdry emotionalism so prevalent today, could not be more stark: those men were interested in solving problems, not in getting in touch with their feelings. Since then, we have seen a lowering of standards across the board, from grade inflation and the dumbing down of tests and curricula in schools to a widespread acceptance of low standards, loose morals, coarse manners, slovenly dress, and trashy entertainment.
They were selected to go into space for the simple reason that they were the best men for the job, a criterion that today is often no longer enough, as Frank Ricci discovered. Today’s NASA seems as interested in trumpeting its commitment to multiculturalism and diversity as in the exploration of space, a commitment that would have struck the men who actually planned and achieved multiple landings on the moon as simply irrelevant to what they were doing.
It is also unlikely that the Apollo astronauts would have come up with a list of famous Americans bearing much resemblance to the list compiled by today’s students, if they had been asked to compile one. American history as taught today is often an exercise in shame and victimology. It is all to the good that we acknowledge the obvious heroism of a Frederick Douglass or a Chief Joseph, but America is about far more than slavery and slaughter. The American story is in fact a remarkable one, from the way Americans tamed this continent to the way we created a Constitution that become a model to the world and an economy that provided greater prosperity to more people than any other country had ever done to the way we blazed the trail in so many technical fields. And if we want our story to continue being a remarkable one, we need to revive the values that helped make those achievements possible, including the remarkable feat we will be remembering this July.