It was 50 years ago that three human beings – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – departed planet Earth to attempt taking a species-defining step onto another cosmic body. On July 16th, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission blasted through the atmospheric boundary between our world and space, towards what, as a certain fictional starship captain and his crew educated us, was the final frontier.
At that special moment we were catapulted into a phase of our existence once reserved for science fiction novels, comic books and movies. What was achieved that day forever changed our perception about the human race, its understanding of its place in the universe and our ability to explore it. Our sense of wonder was pushed beyond all limits it had ever known. Most particularly the wonder of what we can accomplish when a significant number of our human race deems something important and profound is possible (again, in deference to another starship captain) to be made so.
This feeling reached its peak four days later on July 20th, 1969 when the spacecraft containing Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. The world held its breath as Mr. Armstrong put his foot down on the moon’s surface leaving a permanent print not only there but in the record of human history. One historic step taken by one man joined us together as all humans like never before.
As the world watched Armstrong step off the ladder of the Eagle landing module, it was not as rich or poor humans or young or old humans or male and female humans or black, red, white or bronze humans. We were not Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Buddhist humans. Without quite realizing, in the blink of an eye, we were freed from all of the multitude of labels we assign to ourselves. We were just human beings. Equal in our amazement of what we were witnessing. Also equal in our dependence upon the little blue planet poking out from behind Neil Armstrong’s shoulder. When Neil’s boot sunk into the moon’s surface, nearly three quarters of a billion people a quarter of a million miles away simultaneously arched their necks and looked up and watched the impossible become possible.
It is interesting to note that while the Apollo crew was landing in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, the U.S. was navigating upon an ocean of turbulence unprecedented in the century it called its own. At the time of the Apollo 11 mission and its historic implications, the U.S. much like the rest of the world at the time, was experiencing a dark period of generational malaise. In response to political, social, racial and economic pressures we were clashing in the streets and on college campuses, in the halls of government and one on one with each other.
What’s troubling is that the aforementioned description of the socio-economic-political period during which the Apollo 11 mission was successfully accomplished can very easily be used to describe the time within which we currently live. We went so far and so high (and have gone even farther, on the wings of the success of that mission, to even more distant points in our galaxy) only, it seems, to return with a thud to the same place we soared away from.
Despite this challenging reality, on the anniversary of this momentous event in human history, there must be an inclination to revisit the remarkableness of human potential demonstrated by the Apollo 11 mission and be compelled to aim even higher; to overcome the difficulties strewn along our current path. We have a responsibility to recognize that we have an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and by virtue of their example of pushing themselves past their limits proved we can still reach further past our prevailing ones. Not only towards the light of the stars in space but also towards the light of the better selves within us.
It took more than 400,000 people to lift Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins up to the moon, land them there and then safely return them home. This impressive group of people, representing all genders, all colors, all religions and scores of nationalities contributed to the effort over the course of the nearly 10 years it took the NASA program to do it. All dedicated to reaching an audacious goal and beating all odds against it happening. Yes, to be sure, the ‘space race’ was a gauntlet hurled by President Kennedy during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the initial drive behind getting to the moon was to get an American ship and crew there first. But the grand effort of exploration has often proved to reveal truths we did not expect to learn. In the case of the Apollo 11 mission, although Mr. Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon’s surface, in actuality it was his and Mr. Aldrin’s presence there that planted a flag signaling the yet untapped capabilities of all humankind.
This global connectedness on display when the Eagle landed was affirmed on the tour the U.S. astronauts took around the world soon after their return to Earth. People numbering in the millions greeted them as otherworldly heroes. The astronauts themselves recounted of their experiences on that tour how they were constantly congratulated by people all over world who were happy and excited that ‘we’ did it. In that context, it was the collective we of humanity.
As a result of witnessing that amazing feat of will, determination, courage and science on that very special day in 1969, I became and remain an enthusiast for the greatest of human adventures, travel through space. I am no less enthralled today about the endless possibilities of the human experience in space than I was as a 5-year-old sitting cross-legged in front of a black and white vacuum tube TV watching it actually happening.
My wish is that we can hold true to the lessons we learned by stretching our imaginations and creating a legacy of space exploration, particularly those that landed a human on the moon. It is critically important we heed and apply them today. In space and on Earth. Lessons such as the belief in and advancement of science. Yes, science. Clearly there was a time we not only believed in science but figuratively and literally looked UP to it! The lesson that our planet is a living body, just as our own is, and must likewise be treated with respect and care. Most importantly, though, is the lesson that we can either attain even greater knowledge about ourselves as human beings through the benefit of inspired collaboration or be prevented from doing so through disunity.
In the ensuing years post the Apollo missions, we went on to bring together astronauts from other countries, scientists, teachers and even lay people to work on the International Space Station and in the Space Shuttle program. Indeed, where we once competed against them, we eventually found a way to work with the Russians in space. Surely with the same strength of purpose which we proved ourselves capable of working together across local, national and international boundaries to explore space we can loosen the chains of political strife, economic deprivation and social restrictions that bind us and prohibit us from achieving equally amazing things on Earth.
We must do these things, as President Kennedy exhorted us when challenging us to reach the moon in the first place, “…not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
As humans, no matter how far we travel from our point of origin, the one irrevocable constant is that we are all interconnected – to each other and the planet that we call home.
Perhaps by taking one small step towards truly embracing this truth we will fully honor the achievement made by Neil and Buzz and Michael and we will set ourselves up for the next giant leap for mankind.