It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events you never forget. It was July 1969. I was eight years old, but I would be nine in September. My family was getting ready to move from Washington, Iowa to Ann Arbor, Mich. It was a Sunday night, July 20. I was nuts about the space program, and my parents decided I could stay up late and watch the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the moon.
I recall being so excited to see Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the moon. This is what the entire manned space program had been building towards. It was happening, and I was seeing it on television in my own living room.
When Apollo 11 splashed down a few days later, I knew our nation had achieved the goal set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.
I also knew we had beaten those pesky Russians to the moon.
I didn’t have the perspective at the time to understand what this meant for Americans. We could all point to this achievement and be proud of what we as a nation had achieved. It was one of the few things that all Americans could be proud of.
Our nation seemed like it was being torn apart. Radical leftists had seemingly taken over our college campuses. The Civil Rights movement had turned violent, with the decades of anger from African Americans over oppression exploding into the open. Riots rocked almost every one of our major cities, with the worst being in Harlem, Watts, Newark and Detroit. The old and young generations seemed hopelessly at odds and hostile to each other. Opposition to the Vietnam War was growing as the war dragged on, with American radicals openly embracing Communist dictators.
Young people had turned hostile to American institutions. Traditional morality had been turned on its head. Drug use was growing and destroying young lives.
Yet, through it all, we had the space program. At the end of the tumultuous year 1968, we saw our world in an entirely new perspective through the images sent by Apollo 8. We saw the Earth was small and insignificant in the universe, but it was our home. We all lived on the Earth.
Seeing human beings walk on the moon had a similar effect. We were seeing science fiction coming true. It was something that all Americans could be proud of. It helped to hold us all together.
Today, America appears again to be flying apart at the seams. We are at odd with each other, and hostile to each other. We have forgotten how to compromise and come together to get things done. We seem to prefer to vilify each other and engage in righteous indignation instead of working to solve our nation’s problems.
We need to remember Apollo 11 and the manned spacecraft program of the 1960s. The program is proof of what we as Americans can accomplish when we come together, work around our differences, and work towards a common goal.
Our nation’s problems are not insurmountable. However, we have to work together. A nation that can figure out in less than 10 years how to get someone to the moon and return that person to Earth with the relatively primitive technology of the 1960s should be able to accomplish almost anything.
Perhaps what we really need to remember is we are all Americans and we are in this together. That would be a huge step in the right direction.