Why Did We Really Go To The Moon?

           People react to fear, not love—they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.  

                         Richard Nixon

            We celebrate this week the 50th anniversary of the historic landing of humans on the moon. It was an astounding scientific achievement, a “Giant leap for mankind” in pursuit of discovery and knowledge that proved that humans can do anything if we put our minds to the goal. But let’s not forget another important lesson the lunar landing taught us. In the end, fear is what put humans on the moon.

     One October night when I was 11, I looked out from my bedroom window and hoped that if the nuclear bombs started going off while I slept, that nearby Fort Dix or New York or Philadelphia were close enough targets that I’d be killed by the blast, and not the ensuing fires. I really didn’t want to burn to death. I can feel the fear in the pit of my stomach today as I remember that night.

     These fears were hardly the fantasy of one young boy. Some version of the same worry was gnawing at most Americans in those tense Cuban Missile Crisis days. The corrosive Cold War worry that had mostly been in the background for more than a decade, was now staring us in the face. We were days, maybe just hours, away from a conflict that could wipe out most life on earth. Everyone was deeply, viscerally, afraid.

     That fear had been building since tension with the Soviet Union erupted just after World War II. We knew what atomic weapons could do, and that both sides had them. The first international protest movement, Ban the Bomb, began in 1957. “Duck and cover” drills in U.S. schools were as common back then as “live shooter” drills are in schools today. They were truly scary times.

     The fear grew sharper in 1957 when the USSR amazed and frightened the free world with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik. When President Kennedy announced in 1961 that the U.S. would put people on the moon by the end of the decade, the formal beginning of “the Space Race”, we were already behind. And we knew what that race represented; which side had the technological advantage to wipe the other side out. We were losing, and we were worried. 

     So when Presidents Kennedy and then Johnson asked for huge amounts of money for the lunar landing program (it ultimately cost $28 billion, $169 billion in today’s value), nearly everyone was ready to spend it, even in a country torn by disagreement over the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and more. The funding requests were couched in lofty rhetoric about the human desire for discovery and scientific advance, but we all knew that getting to the moon first was about safety.

     The lunar landing program also illustrates how fear can bring people together. America was badly divided back then. But on July 16, 1969, Americans who had been protesting both for and against the war in Vietnam, Americans fighting for greater civil rights and violently opposed to that progress, Americans arguing for or against equal rights for women, and Americans of different races and economic and religious and cultural backgrounds, set all these differences aside and watched as one with sweaty palms and held breath as Apollo 11 took off or the moon. Yes we were worried for the astronauts. Yes we were excited at the prospect of humans first stepping on another celestial body. But we all realized that Soviet mastery of space flight gave them a frightening Cold War advantage. Which is why for those few united days during the Apollo 11 mission, a country that had spent the last few years torn apart was instead living by the national motto of E pluribus unum– out of many, one.


   How might those lessons help us today, when divisions are even deeper and more passionate? So deep in fact that the whole idea of E pluribus unum – we’re all in this together– is on shaky ground. Is there some deep fear we all share that might spark a national project around which we all might rally, as we did back then?

    How about our shared fear of cancer? Lord knows our fear of the Emperor of All Maladies runs deep, and touches everybody. President Nixon invoked the Moon Shot analogy to rally support for massive public investment to cure cancer in 1972, suggesting that “if we could put men on the moon, we can do ANYTHING!” But when President Obama called for reinvigorated national effort to cure cancer in his last State of the Union address and invoked that same Moon Shot analogy again, the public response was tepid. Yes, the fear is there. But we know the fight against cancer is a long term, step-by-slow-step incremental project, not the singular focused Moon Landing program that so inspired us 50 years ago.

     Another possibility might be the common fear that we have less and less control over our own lives and our futures. You can hear it from all sides. People on the right say the government and the global economy are controlling us. People on the left blame capitalism and the wealthy. People on all sides blame Big Tech – Facebook and Google and Amazon, etc. –  for running our lives in so many ways. The culprits may differ but the underlying concern is shared. We don’t feel like we have control over how our own lives are going. We feel powerless, vulnerable, worried.

     This fear isn’t as obvious as fear of nuclear war, but it’s deep. In fact, it explains the virulent passion of our current divisiveness. When we feel powerless as individuals, we turn to the groups with which we most closely identify – our tribes –  for the protection and power we get from our group that we don’t have on our own. It is a deep human instinct to circle the wagons when we are afraid, in this case because we feel like we have less and less personal control over our lives and futures.

     So what might be the modern version the Lunar Landing Program that can rally us together to deal with this fear? Perhaps it could be the growing movement to take back control of our government. The widespread popularity of term limits on elected office is just one example. There are serious efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to reduce the influence of money on politics, and work being done in an increasing number of states to take congressional districting out of the gerrymandering hands of self-serving politicians. There are spreading efforts to adopt new approaches to elections that would take control of politics away from the two main parties and make the process more democratic, like ranked choice voting for candidates or proportional delegation of Presidential Electoral College votes.

     The problem is, these multiple projects are spread out. The work to return control of our government to usis even more diffuse than the War on Cancer. They would somehow have to be brought under some clearer central banner, with a name like “Reclaim Our Democracy” or something like that. But these ideas clearly have widespread support. People have adopted them, or are working to enact them, in towns and cities and states across the country, red and blue. 

     So maybe, just maybe, all the work to restore a government that is actually of and by and for the people can be the modern Lunar Landing Program around which we all can rally. Maybe the work to restore true democracy and our sense of power over our government can get us out of our tribal bunkers and into the sense of shared purpose that united Americans 50 years ago. Maybe the same fear that is driving us apart, can be the motivation that brings us at least a little closer together. 

     Maybe. It will be hard, you say, and that’s true. But then, nobody thought we could put humans on the moon. If Apollo 11 taught anything, it is that when we are afraid enough, we can come together and accomplish remarkable things.

Source: Courtesy; Time Magazine

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