In 1969, America had no greater hero than astronaut Neil Armstrong. People got up in the middle of the night to watch blurry television transmissions from the moon, including Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. People remember where they were at that moment in the same way they remember where they were when they heard about airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center only it is a positive memory, filled with wonder instead of fear.
We looked at the moon with different eyes, knowing that, as we gazed, there were real men hopping around on the lunar surface. It was surreal but inspiring. If we could do this, what other accomplishments would come next?
Much has changed since that time. The space shuttles have taken their last flights, and although unmanned spacecraft still are setting scientific milestones, the nation’s space program has lost much of its ability to inspire. After years outside the public eye, Neil Armstrong resurfaced a couple of years to ago to decry the cancellation of NASA’s program to send astronauts back to the moon and express skepticism that relying on commercial companies would be a winning strategy. Last September, he told a U.S. House committee that NASA “must find ways of restoring hope and confidence to a confused and disconsolate work force.”
Perhaps it isn’t a prudent choice right now for America to commit the financial resources necessary to renew manned spaceflight. It may not have been a practical choice in the 1960s, but the accomplishments of that era were a “giant leap for mankind” and an inspiration to the nation that seems to be sorely lacking today.