At Your Service: July 22, 2009
By Margaret S. Inge
It has been 40 years since Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, taking a giant leap for mankind. It was the culmination of millennia of dreams of wonder and eight years of dedicated work. The timing could not have been more perfect then; it is the kind of event we could use now.
In 1960, President John F. Kennedy declared, in the face of much doubt, that we would go to the moon before the end of the decade. There were numerous problems facing the nation that were believed to be more important. Trouble was brewing in Southeast Asia, as the Korean “conflict” seemed to be drawing to a conclusion; our relationship with the USSR was rapidly chilling into the Cold War and “communism” was spreading, most notably off our southern shores in Cuba. On the domestic front, the fight for civil rights had accelerated and the boom balloon of the ’50swas losing steam; and perhaps most importantly, the technology to accomplish the task was nonexistent.
JFK had the wisdom to challenge the nation to achieve something greater than anything done before. Yes, there was the reality that the USSR was making the same attempt, but his challenge superseded mere rivalry. He pointed us in a direction that engaged everyone’s dreams; it was a challenge large enough to embrace the nation.
In the interim eight years, JFK was assassinated and two other men succeeded to the office of president, Viet Nam mushroomed into a controversial undeclared war; the Cold War had cemented into walls dividing nations and cities; the Voting Rights Act was passed but the conflicts continued, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and hundreds of others protesting for civil rights were slain; college students began changing the rules and were mixing up issues of sex, gender, age and responsibility.
Still, on August 20, everything stood still and everyone focused their attention on the skies.
As gild on the lily, we also had the man who, then and now, was considered the most trusted man in America to interpret the event and stand in awe with us. Walter Cronkite was as much a part of the event and times as were the astronauts. It was a perfect storm of accomplishment. And in contrast to today, it was done with the technological equivalent of what would now be a small hand calculator. Together we had accomplished what none had done before and even if only for a few hours, it overshadowed all else.
This time is not that different than 1960. The details of the issues we face are different, but there are just as many challenges that divide us. We have a young new president aiming to improve the lives of the people of his nation and he has chosen his first round of causes. Unfortunately, the environment and health care have neither the allure nor the universality of the moon. There is no agreement about these issues beyond the consensus that they are problems.
Looking into the night sky I am reminded that there are horizons beyond this planet. There are challenges we have not faced that are larger than one nation or even one world.