How did we go from reaching the moon to wrestling in the mud?
The late Neil Armstrong was the perfect hero. He was so unassuming, most Americans couldn’t have identified him in a police lineup.
In terms of spirit and temperament, he was a direct descendant of Wilbur and Orville Wright, whose aircraft changed the world in 1903, and Col. John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit Earth.
Armstrong doubtlessly was a touchstone for others. His own brilliance and immeasurable bravery were obscured by his lack of self-aggrandizement. But on July 20, 1969, he descended from Apollo 11 onto the surface of the moon and changed the world.
You probably have to be a certain age to fully grasp the courage and audacity it required for the U.S. to attempt a manned moonshot. Even in the maelstrom of Vietnam and the fight for civil rights, NASA and its astronauts embodied our collective innate belief that we always figure it out; that we could accomplish anything.
As Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took off in their module, the message was clear: We are America. There’s nothing we can’t do.
So how did we get from there to here? When did the country that delivered Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon and back, without so much as a scratch, become so afraid, so small, so willfully incurious?
How did we go from traversing the Sea of Tranquility to wrestling down in the mud?
On July 20, 1969, we accomplished what should have been impossible. Consider that the technology in your pocket is more sophisticated than what jettisoned Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins from Earth’s surface.
But we did it. America conquered that which had eluded and fascinated man for millennia. So, why can’t we get it together here on the ground?
Perhaps it’s because space exploration is essentially mathematics and physics problems. “Two plus two equals four” is an immutable equation in any language, culture or belief system. You can’t spin, shade or argue against it.
In 2018, everything else, it appears, is subject to debate and a level of distrust and second-guessing unseen in times past.
The thirst for adventure and discovery once so analogous to being American has been sated instead with the junk food of mediocre entertainment, coupled with endless refills of outrage, courtesy of social media.
This month kicks off a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. There will be plenty of books, specials and articles extolling the Apollo crew and the scientists and engineers who helped make it possible.
It celebrates a dream that even transcended that which divided us. It was John F. Kennedy who first proposed the idea, and Richard Nixon who saw it through.
Given the current level of toxicity and partisanship, you have to wonder if it could be accomplished today, even with all our know-how.
It’s a far distance to fall.
Charita Goshay is a GateHouse Media columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.