On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy established the goal of putting a man on the moon. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things,” Kennedy famously proclaimed, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” As a shot across the bow of the Soviet Union in the most frigid days of the Cold War, the Space Race was on.
Only a month after the president’s inspirational address and ambitious national goal-setting, JFK returned to the TV to announce that the Soviet Union was deploying nuclear-armed missiles to bases 90 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba. “The purpose of these bases,” Kennedy warned, “can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” The country was in mortal danger.
In both cases, history recalls these national addresses in a favorable, even heroic light; because we did put a man on the moon and we did not wisp away in a cloud of nuclear dust.
While I recall the early 1960s more as a student of history than through my own experiences as a child, I think it’s safe to say that without an arch enemy like the Soviet Union, the dollars and manpower extended to reach the little rock that orbits the earth could never have been justified. It wasn’t just getting to the moon; the goal was to get there before the Russians.
The point is that exploring space in the 1960s, especially with the fantastical goal of putting a man on the moon, was carried out under the immense existential tension posed by the dreaded Soviet Union.
In a rather pathetic observation of human nature, having enemies can unify a country and motivate a great deal of patriotic activity. World War II went well for this reason. Hating Hitler was easy. And it certainly takes a great deal of communal animosity to cheer after whole cities are destroyed. There were other reasons to cheer, of course, but the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were secondary to the fact that the war was over.
It just wasn’t the same in Vietnam; mainly because the government lost control of the message. As much as those waging war tried to convince us that all that firebombing was for our own good and safety, a lot of us simply had a hard time mustering up the necessary hatred to justify annihilating millions of people wearing sandals, living in huts, and scratching out their living from the land.
In the very heart of that conflict, Kennedy’s man-on-the-moon goal was achieved when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module. It was a moment of wonder in a time of strife. I wasn’t old enough to remember Kennedy’s 1962 speech, but I was a fully viable nine-year-old when Armstrong did his thing. The entire country— the world—was transfixed.
Exploring space became a big deal for an entire generation. I know because the possibilities struck me early on. I was recently reminded by older members of my family that as a child of two or three years of age I designed a method to remove myself from unpleasant social situations. Whenever I wanted to leave the room, I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, pointed my two index fingers to the sky, and made rocket ship noises that type like this: Kusssshhhhhhhhhhh.
This is the side of space exploration that often gets neglected. While it is certainly very cool to “explore new worlds,” it is also liberating to imagine getting away from this one.
It might be getting crowded out there, though. “We may even have a Space Force,” President Trump said in 2018, “develop another one—Space Force. We have the Air Force. We’ll have the Space Force.”
I don’t know about you, but the idea of further militarizing space does not provide me with much comfort. However, it appears that this new branch of the Armed Forces will consolidate existing space-related programs under one umbrella and—despite my ever-growing skepticism regarding bold ideas from a leader who has trouble crafting complete sentences—this one makes sense to me.
With a bit more eloquence, Vice President Mike Pence announced in 2019 that “[I]t is the stated policy of this administration to return astronauts to the moon within the next five years.” Clearly channeling JFK, Pence put on a good show and, despite my inclination to say, “Hey, Mike, we already did that,” I kinda like the idea of using the moon as a launching pad to Mars.
The only thing missing is an adversary with the same goal, something to stir our blood a bit. Unfortunately, the only thing stirring my blood right now has nothing to do with Russia or China or Iran or whoever.
This is from President Trump during a White House event honoring the 50th anniversary of the moon landing:
“Tomorrow will represent 50 years from the time we planted a beautiful American flag on the moon. And that was an achievement — possibly, one of the great — considered one of the great achievements ever. And we’re going a lot further now. We’re going to the moon but we’re then going to Mars. And I think, very importantly — and all of you folks know that, from a standpoint of defense, so important, where we’re going to be doing the Space Force. I assume you guys are all fans of the Space Force, right? I’d be very surprised if you weren’t. But that’s where it’s at. We’re going to be doing the Space Force. We’re very close to getting that completed and operating. It’s going to be very exciting. So a lot of things are happening.”
Yes, a lot of things are happening.