Could it be heroism underplayed 50 years on?
Last month, the United States — and the world — celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings on D-Day. You simply could not get away from the D-Day coverage, and we deemed that a good thing. The largest amphibious invasion in history had myriad stories to tell, many of which dealt with heroism extraordinary. Finally, the observance was billed as “The Last Salute”: The gallant men who finally prevailed that “longest day” are dwindling down to a precious few.
Now, here we are, six weeks later, and we’re honoring another set of heroes, though smaller in size, numbering but three — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Three only, traversing the confounding distances of space, but sufficient to make history by guiding the Lunar Rover from Apollo 11 to the surface of the moon.
“Apollo 11 was one of the most inspiring things in all of human history,” says Elon Musk, whose current SpaceX program is in a vigorous mix, albeit little known, of 21st-century space exploration.
“Little known,” or “little recognized” among the general population, which was galvanized by the heroics of the Apollo 11 trio’s predecessors — men like John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Gordon Cooper. That’s precisely our point. This anniversary is coming off with barely a “3-2-1-Ignition-Blast Off.”
It could be that America considers space exploration, though important, to be somewhat old hat. There may be a space race presently going on — China (surprise, surprise) is a leading albeit understated player, as is Mr. Musk — but what transpired 50 years ago and beyond was front-page news. Imagine, American feet on the moon. Yes, imagine.
Still, it was as much the gauntlet laid down by President John F. Kennedy — we will put a man on the moon within a decade — as it was the newness of the endeavor and the relative short walk for the “greatest generation” from one world to another. Remember, Rear Adm. Shepard’s feat as the first American to travel into space took place just 16 years after the end of World War II. Americans were excited by the proposition of space.
Oddly enough, President Kennedy wasn’t. The race to the moon was a political vehicle — it became his agenda — after the Bay of Pigs failure and the Soviets’ launching of Yuri Gagarin into space on April 12, 1961. Less than two months, Mr. Kennedy delivered his deadline. His administration had gotten off on a shaky foot. He needed a stabilizer. Why not the moon?
Sadly, JFK, assassinated in 1963, was not there to witness his goal — political though it may have been, to him, but not to the people who viewed the conquest of space more in terms of “American exceptionalism” — but a stunning 94 percent glued their eyes to the TV to witness the lunar landing on this day 50 years ago.
It was a moment we’ll never forget, as “inspiring” as Mr. Musk says. So why the seeming effort to underplay it 50 years on?