Is U.S. greatness only a memory?

August 30, 2012


Once upon a time, a man walked on the moon.

He climbed down the ladder onto lunar soil, the first human being ever to do so. “That’s one for small step for (a) man,” he famously said, “one giant leap for mankind.” It was one of history’s greatest feats and we had done it, we Americans.

That man died Saturday of complications from a cardiovascular procedure. Neil Armstrong, a Korean War fighter pilot from small town Ohio, was 82.

He never spoke much about what he had done, shied away from publicity, never even wrote a memoir. In a confessional nation where fame is an end unto itself, that made him something of an anomaly. But Armstrong adhered to an older American model of competence and taciturnity that required a man, whether astronaut, cop or farmer, to simply do his job and shut up about it.

You have to respect that. At the same time, one wishes Armstrong had found a way to overcome his natural reserve and speak more often about the great thing he did — not so much for his benefit, but for ours. His achievement offers America a reminder of itself..

One day, once upon a time, we all looked up. Los Angeles looked up, Miami looked up. Hoboken and Duluth looked up. Beijing, Moscow, Havana, London, Brisbane, Cairo, Krakow, Tehran, Tangiers, Paris, Madrid, Johannesburg . . . the world looked up from its daily doings. We all stared up at the familiar old moon where men, people who looked like us, were walking around. And for that brief moment we were united in possibility and in wonder.

This is what America achieved, once upon a time, and who could have been surprised that we did? Once upon a time, this was a nation that met challenges and pushed back frontiers. We had re-routed rivers and stitched a railroad across the heart of a continent, linked two oceans and rebuilt Europe, faced down evil and, from Berlin to Birmingham, championed the right of human beings to be free.

Now we had outdone ourselves. Now we had sent men to the moon.

But that was once upon a time. Forty-three years later, we still face challenges — schools are failing, the planet is sick, towns are dying, our justice system is not just, we are dependent for energy on those who hate us — but our confidence in our ability to meet those challenges seems shrunken. We have traded the inspirational for the ideological and learned to lower our expectations. Big ideas are unwelcome. We call it pragmatism. It feels like surrender.

America hasn’t sent a human being to the moon — or any other planet — since 1972. And when Newt Gingrich suggested earlier this year that America should build a colony on the moon, everybody laughed.

Granted, that’s because it was Newt Gingrich who said it. Even so, the reflexive laughter raises an obvious question:

What’s wrong with a moon base?

Yes, some will call it frivolous given the difficulties America faces. But we first landed on the moon in the 1960s, hardly an era of tranquility. And yes, too, we were driven to that in large part by Cold War paranoia.

But we were also driven by the confidence that came of being who we were and believing we could achieve any goal we could conceive. Now we raise foam fingers and chant, “We’re Number One!” It is not the same.

The argument here is not about moon bases. It is about everything. It is about who we are now. And what we stand for. And what we hope to achieve and why.

Greatness is our heritage, but heritage is another word for past. The legacy of the quiet hero who left us this week is that Americans do not settle for heritage. They push back frontiers. They take small steps and giant leaps.

That is who we have always been.

And that went without saying, once upon a time.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


Larry Sturm 5 years, 7 months ago

Problem . We started a war that we should not have been in. We have the rich that think that they don't have to pay their fair share of taxes and make big bucks from wars. The religious right don't read the bible where it says "To whom much is given much is expected" or to take care of the sick and the poor.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

Of all the things we should be concerned with, a moon base seems like the least of them to me.

Let's get inspired about solving our problems instead of spending massive amounts of time, energy and money colonizing the moon, for God's sake.

ThePilgrim 5 years, 7 months ago

NASA's budget is less than 0.4% of the US budget. Yet both Dems and Repubs want to cut it further - Dems because they want the money for Statist entitlement programs, and Repubs because they want to cut everything. In a country that has no wonder left, and no basic science competency, this should not be a surprise. But it is a crying shame.

oldbaldguy 5 years, 7 months ago

space is our future. money spent at NASA is normally money well spent.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

So, instead of fixing the problems on this planet, we'll just colonize others and bring those problems there?

Seems like a rather expensive waste of money to me.

paulveer 5 years, 7 months ago

You can thank the space program for most of modern high technology. Among the best investments by government ever!

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

By the way, are you aware that the vast bulk of oil production in the US is for EXPORT? These people aren't fracking and destroying US homes and towns to supply domestic oil needs. They are doing it to sell OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY. And who is the biggest culprit in this scam to strip our country of it's natural resources and turn it into an unlivable wasteland? I'll give you a hint. It starts with K.

Armstrong 5 years, 7 months ago

Once Hope and change become a memory there is no doubt greatness will come back

Armstrong 5 years, 7 months ago

Class and Pitts are two words that do not belong in the same sentence

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

Once Hope and Change become a memory then we are doomed and left with stagnation and hopelessness. Maybe that's what you want to leave your grandchildren but not me.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

I can't believe no one embedded this.
Warning, there ARE curse words in this. If you have sensitive ears, don't open it. But I think what's in it may make you angrier and more disgusted than a few curse words. Of course, what's important is WHY it makes you angry. Because it will either enlighten you, or scare you.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

Watching this sends the same chills up my spine that I got the first time I saw it. I want to cry. Not out of fear, but out of mourning. I grew up in a time that was great in this country; a time reflected in the second half of his speech, when Americans strove for excellence and feared nothing. Most of all they didn't fear knowledge and they revered knowledge more than myth. I have a painful, aching nostalgia for that time.

rtwngr 5 years, 7 months ago

We will enjoy greatness as a nation again after we elect a new president that shares those dreams. Our current president is ashamed of our country and goes around the world apologizing for it. Hit the road Barack and don't you come back no more no more. Hit the road Barack and don't you come back no more.

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

And you have no consciousness of the fact that you are the problem and not the solution. You are blinded by ideology and that is how you define yourself and the rest of the world.

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