When artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission to the moon were displayed at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh last year, it was striking just how primitive most of those objects looked.
Standing just feet from the command module that orbited the moon in July 1969 while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted their boots on the lunar surface, you couldn’t help but be amazed that a vessel that now appears antique was catapulted 200,000 miles into space, and then made a return trip, splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean. The same goes for the suits the astronauts wore on the moon and the equipment they deployed. It all seemed far more workaday than anything the creators of “Buck Rogers,” “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” or hundreds of other science-fiction sagas could have imagined.
But the fact is that all of it did go to the moon in one of this country’s greatest triumphs. Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Armstrong making “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was the culmination of a heated, decadelong race with the Soviet Union to do and achieve more in space, and was a moment of unalloyed jubilation in a turbulent American decade that saw assassinations, urban riots and a divisive conflict in Vietnam.
It was a victory for the United States, and a magnificent achievement for all humanity.
Ponder for a minute that Wilbur and Orville Wright concocted the world’s first successful airplane just 65 years before. Some of the Americans who stayed up late to watch Armstrong and Aldrin bounce around on the moon on that long-ago Sunday had been born before there were television sets, radios, movies, airplanes or even cars. They came into a world where the steam locomotive and telegraph stood atop the technological hierarchy. The century’s worth of scientific advances that led to the first moonwalk must have been astounding if you were born in the latter part of the 1800s.
If we could go from Kitty Hawk to the Sea of Tranquility in such a relatively short span, perhaps solutions to our knottiest problems are within our grasp. Maybe we can stumble across a cure for cancer, or discover ways to easily unclog arteries. Perhaps we can find a way to alleviate the worst effects of climate change and leave a healthy and safe environment to our children and grandchildren. Too many of us deny global warming or believe nonsense about vaccines being harmful. The Apollo 11 mission should serve as a reminder of what science can accomplish, and why the work of researchers should be embraced, not shrugged off. Science has made our lives better, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
That first moonwalk, and the way it connected millions of people around the world, should also make us think about the things that divide us. Maybe those divides are not as deep as we think.
After he returned to Earth, the third astronaut on the journey, Michael Collins, offered an observation that is particularly relevant today: “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of let’s say, 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced.”