July 17, 2009
For those of you above a certain age, do you remember where you were on July 20, 1969? I certainly do. Just as many of us will never forget where we were when we learned about 9/11 or heard President Kennedy had been shot, many of us will always remember where we were on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon.
Reminiscing about the first moon landing has triggered in me a flood of vivid memories about various milestones in “the space race” against the Soviets—a race in which they took the early lead, but the United States caught up and surpassed them.
In 1957, the beginning: Standing in our driveway and watching Sputnik twinkle in the sky as it passed overhead.
May 5, 1961: Sitting on the gym floor with all my classmates and Mr. Grant in Longfellow Elementary School. We set aside all thought of running and playing as we listened on radio to history being made as Alan Shepard became the first American to journey into space.
January 27, 1967: Stepping through the front door into our living room and hearing the television blare the stunning report of the launch-pad fire that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.
Christmas Eve, 1968: In the same living room and on the same television set, I recall the profound feeling of eeriness, wonder and mystery when Apollo 8 first passed behind the moon, completely removed from all contact with planet Earth.
July 20, 1969: The crowning achievement—Apollo 11’s successful moon landing. I was in Mexico. In hushed anticipation, a group of us—Mexicans and gringos alike—gathered around a black & white television in the lobby of the Hotel Acueducto in Morelia to watch Neil Armstrong climb down the ladder of the lunar landing module and safely step onto the moon’s surface. Awestruck, we applauded the surreal image on the television screen.
The next day, we took a bus trip. The driver stopped for a quick break in the center of a poor village. I was overwhelmed by the incongruity of two concurrent realities—the shoeless, dirty vendors rushing out of their crude, primitive stalls to hawk their mysterious, unidentifiable, supposedly edible merchandise to us through the windows of the bus, while two men were walking on the moon a quarter of a million miles above us. It was disorientating. How could there be such poverty and primitiveness in one corner of planet earth while another human society had achieved such wealth and technological advancement as to put people on the moon?
This was a defining moment in my life. My heart yearned to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. That desire impelled my youthful foray into socialism. Later, having learned socialism’s shortcomings and fallacies, the quest that Apollo 11 had kindled in my heart in July 1969 culminated in my embrace of free markets as the best, though imperfect, way to uplift mankind from poverty.
The space program has provided other indelible memories. Nothing ever surpassed the intense, protracted drama of bringing the Apollo 13 crew home after nearly losing them in space. I doubt that the world has ever been more united in prayer than it was during those several days in April 1970.
In more recent years, the wonder of the space program seems to have diminished. Our strongest memories are of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. However, I think we are weighed down by something more somber and depressing than those two horrible but isolated tragedies.
When the dream of landing a man on the moon was fulfilled 40 years ago, there was a prevailing sense of hope and optimism. If we could achieve this, what couldn't we achieve?
Alas, like those who built the tower of Babel in Genesis, perhaps we made the mistake of thinking we could build a better world without God’s guidance. Instead of reaffirming our country’s Judeo-Christian roots and principles, we opted for a secular salvation. We placed our faith in Big Government, thinking that democratic politics could eradicate poverty, end injustice, and usher in a new age of Aquarius or Peace and Prosperity or Heaven on Earth, or whatever you wish to call it.
We erred. We were wrong. Forty years ago, we put men on the moon. Today, our streets, bridges, and electricity infrastructure are decrepit and decaying; our body politic is riven by distrust and hostility; we teeter on the edge of national bankruptcy and economic abyss.
Are we doomed? Never! The same spirit that overcame multiple “can’t-be-done” obstacles can attain a better and brighter future for mankind. But only with the help of a merciful God. If we reconsecrate our lives to Him, just think what glorious heights we will be able to celebrate 40 years from today.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.