National Perspective by David Shribman

Why Walking on the Moon Meant So Much

This week let us consider the wisdom of this remark:

"This isn’t the work of one man or even a group of men. It is a historical process which mankind is carrying out in accordance with the natural law of human development."

The comments were from Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who in 1961 became the first human in space. He was not speaking of the American achievement of landing on the moon 50 years ago -- he died more than a year before that occurred -- but he just as well might have been. The natural law of human development led us to the moon. Inexplicable human political forces have prevented us from going there since Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, the last two astronauts to stride across the lunar surface, left the moon 47 years ago -- roughly the distance between the presidency of Benjamin Harrison and the beginning of World War II.

And yet Gagarin was right. This week’s salute marking the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is, to be sure, an American commemoration, but it also is a celebration of humankind’s yearning for adventure -- and of the remarkable, and today largely forgotten, spike of wonder that grew out of the small steps of Neil Armstrong and the giant leap of mankind those steps represented.

"You find me something other than this that ever has caused that kind of aspirational, unifying draw -- or one that generated so many other discoveries," Kathryn Sullivan, a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and the first American woman to perform a spacewalk, said in an interview.

The past month has been full of retrospectives on Apollo 11, on the determination of John F. Kennedy to assure that the United States sent a man to the moon and returned him safely to Earth, on the byproducts of the space effort, and on the contemporary efforts -- by China, India, Israel and others, including Donald Trump’s United States -- to repeat the feat.

It has been an uplifting moment of reminiscence and reflection. At the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, buttons and plaques are on sale with this signature quote from the 35th president: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Starved for a sense of national, and personal, purpose, I bought two of them, one for each daughter.

That notion -- not because it is easy, but because it is hard -- is an aphorism for the ages, though more for Kennedy’s age than for ours. But read further into that Sept. 12, 1962, Rice University speech, and you will see that the rationale for Kennedy’s initiative was more than a species self-improvement project. That’s because he wanted Americans to go to the moon -- and here we pick up the sentence where we left off a moment ago -- "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 ..."

The target of the Kennedy notion may have been the moon, but its effect was to be felt here on Earth. "What was larger than walking on the moon," the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told me recently, "was having a goal that required national imagination and the striving for something big."

Jerome Weisner, Kennedy’s science adviser and a sometime-skeptic of manned exploration of the lunar world, believed the president saw space exploration as "the symbol of the 20th century." That century, to be sure, had myriad symbols, many of them, including concentration camps and atomic weaponry, at base toxic. It is, moreover, incontrovertible that the American space effort grew directly from Nazi rocketry initiatives. And Apollo 11 was the logical extension of the alliance of government, universities and major corporations that won World War II and shaped today’s technology.

Project Apollo reflected the tensions of the times, and the character of America at midcentury. All the astronauts were males, most with military backgrounds, though NASA was one of the few government agencies to speak to a narrow view of diversity; Kennedy shipped millions of dollars and created hundreds of space jobs in the South to placate the region after alienating it with his hesitant embrace of the civil rights movement. And, in a very modest way, NASA drew upon the intelligence and ingenuity of women. Hazel Fellows, a seamstress, helped assemble spacesuits, while Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson calculated spacecraft trajectories. Others found notoriety decades later, in the 2016 "Hidden Figures" film that brought attention to the women who, quite literally, figured in the space program.

This was an age of modern physics and engineering, and of old-fashioned American tinkering. It required a dozen steps (and then slipping it into a thermal blanket and a metal shroud) to prepare the American flag that the astronauts were to place on the lunar surface. Years after the astronauts returned to Earth, the National Air and Space Museum spent months and thousands of dollars to figure out how to preserve and display Armstrong’s spacesuit -- the American equivalent of preserving Lenin’s body in Red Square.

This year’s commemoration has assured that the lunar landing has not disappeared from American memory. But customarily, the American character is formed less from memory of the past than by aspirations for the future. And so this half-century burst of nostalgia has taught us a sober lesson: We have no unified aspiration for the future. A country this rich -- in wealth, in tradition -- seems poor for its lack of both unity and aspiration.

Listen to a long-ignored excerpt from Kennedy’s speech at Rice:

"(O)ur leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.

"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."

Who today -- in an era when everyone has a voice, on the web or on Twitter or on cable -- speaks in an idiom remotely like this? Who today believes we can live without it?

EDITORS: For editorial questions, please contact Lisa Tarry,