NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT – When I remember the moon landing, I think about my father. Fifty years ago, on the evening of Sunday, July 20, 1969, we sat together in Dad’s capacious study in our house in Ithaca, New York, holding our breaths, hardly uttering a word as the Eagle touched down.
My father, raised in Barbados, was a stern and distant man of donnish bent. He was rarely impressed and almost never smiled. But when Neil Armstrong, the Apollo 11 mission commander, stepped onto the lunar surface, Dad grinned from ear to ear. The nation joined in. The world joined in. The jubilation of the moment cannot be explained. There is no analogy.
A glowing profile a few days before launch insisted that Armstrong’s “acts” would “survive in all probability as long as mankind exists.” That was how people felt, as if history had suddenly taken a sharp turn. Actually it hadn’t — but we were in the grip of a fevered optimism.
If you’re not old enough to remember, the chances are you don’t appreciate how desperately the nation and the world needed Apollo 11. The Vietnam War seemed eternal. Tricky Dick was in the White House. Meanwhile, heroes were falling everywhere. Just 13 months earlier, Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles. Two months before that, Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. During the spring and summer of 1968, the nation’s cities had burned.
That weekend, the nation’s left was in a particularly bad way. On Saturday morning — literally the day before the Eagle touched down — I had witnessed my father’s agony after learning that the previous night, Sen. Edward Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. The senator would (quite justifiably) be dogged by questions about Chappaquiddick for the rest of his political career.
My father was bereft. He had worked in John Kennedy’s administration and been part of Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. He was among those who had seen Teddy as the best hope to defeat President Richard Nixon in 1972. Now that hope was gone.
Yet now one of his hero John Kennedy’s greatest dreams was about to be realized, and Dad was smiling. JFK’s promise to put a man on the moon within the decade has given us the phrase “moon shot,” used routinely nowadays to describe the commitment of vast resources to solving a specified problem. As Alex Davies points out in Wired, the term may be too narrow to describe today’s technological challenges, like curing cancer or mitigating the effects of climate change. Unlike reaching the moon, Davies argues, the challenges of our era cannot be achieved by re-engineering existing technology and lack “clear-cut finish lines.”
But the clear-cut finish line was part of what made the Apollo missions so exciting. It’s easy to forget how in the 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. lagged behind the Soviet Union in the space race. The Soviets launched the first true satellite, put the first man in space, put the first woman in space, and accomplished the first spacewalk. The U.S. was terrified of falling further behind. Winning the race to the moon became among the highest of national priorities.
Yet there were those who harbored doubts. Civil rights groups protested the cost, asking why the money wasn’t being spent on building affordable housing and solving other urban problems. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. had observed wryly, “In a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence.” In the spring of 1969, scant weeks before the launch of Apollo 11, the National Welfare Rights Organization even staged a sit-in outside Mission Control in Houston. A year later, the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron would write a scathing poem called “Whitey on the Moon.” A sample: “I can’t pay no doctor bill/(but Whitey’s on the moon)/Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still/(while Whitey’s on the moon).”
As I watched with excitement Armstrong climbing down to the lunar surface, I was aware of none of this ferment. My father was heavily involved in the movement, but he had not chosen to share such concerns with his children. Our middle-class parents had raised us as far as possible from “the slums on Earth” of which King spoke.
The young teenager I was had grown up reading science fiction and dreaming of outer space. I was too caught up in the delight of the moment to consider other possible ways to spend the money. Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001: A Space Odyssey” had been released the year before, and I lost count of how many times I saw it. In my teenaged mind’s eye, I foresaw a near future in which hopping onto a spacecraft was little different than hopping onto a plane. I wanted lunar colonies, space stations, missions to our sister planets and beyond.
Finally the moment came. “Armstrong on the moon!” flashed the television. We all remember his carefully scripted first words — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — even if he flubbed them by omitting “a” before “man.” But I’ve always liked his next words, because they were spontaneous: “Yes, the surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe.”
As my dad was quick to point out, that was the true first impression of the first human being to set foot on another celestial body. True, like most of what the world discovered through Apollo 11, the line only told us what scientists already knew. In the half century since, it’s become common to describe the mission as a waste in that sense, because so little was learned.
The criticism misses the mark. The moon landing, like the space program itself, served a different set of needs. All through history, the stars have been shining down on what we are pleased to call civilization. Reaching those distant glimmers has been a human dream for as long as there have been human beings to look upward in wonder. The desire has quickened in billions of hearts. And for a jubilant moment on the evening of July 20, 1969, we really thought the world had taken one giant leap along the way.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University and served as a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”