Reflecting this month on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, I came to a compelling question: What’s keeping us from setting our sights on a new moon? In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University announcing that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” At that moment, he set every American’s ambitions on something vast and unknown, perhaps even beyond our grasp.
Kennedy would die a little over a year later, but his words still drove us to the end he sought — with less than five months left in that decade, an American walked on the moon. The Cold War was certainly a factor in the speed at which we achieved our goal, but I don’t think that matters. We said we would do something, and we did — through an unyielding effort as a nation.
But the question remains: what moon are we seeking today?
No matter what wars it may wage, there is still an essential duty for government to capture that innate human desire to spur civilization on to new bounds, both physical and intellectual. In the ‘60s, the moon was next.
While pondering our contemporary moon-quest, I realized the more I thought, the less likely I was to find an answer. There is no clear, unifying goal for our nation of the same caliber as the Apollo mission, and I don’t think politics can provide it either. The moon landing had its fair share of protests, particularly on its exorbitant costs. However, it was a nonpartisan goal, bringing people together for the continuance of discovery.
Now, we concern ourselves with the past, especially in politics — pursuing retroactive gestures to solve today’s problems, necessary though these solutions may be. We have lost that spirit that once drove us boldly into unimagined futures. Much of the foot-dragging in politics is sourced in the notion that many of the plans set forth are unrealistic or impractical, but what about the Apollo mission, at its outset, was practical?
Yes, we developed freeze-dried food and the integrated circuit along the way, but when it was initially proposed, the goal was simply to land on the moon. There was no practical purpose and it seemed, above all else, unrealistic. If we didn’t let it deter us then, why should we let it now? Let us set these quixotic goals “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
When did the government become so unconcerned with issues that present a challenge? And what duty does a government have aside from rousing its people to strive for a seemingly unattainable future? An event like the moon landing makes such a future feel almost within our grasp.
Since the dawn of humankind, the moon has hung far above our heads — in ancient Babylon and Egypt it was worthy of spiritual worship and is still the basis of the Chinese and Hebrew calendars. Once Neil Armstrong took his first “small step,” we conquered a millennia-long curiosity of the human condition, and in the 50 years since, I have seen no renewed sense of exploration among leaders or citizens.
It would take only a taste of that pioneering disposition to propel us into that same state of fervor for discovery we once had, and with the staggering advancements in technology since the ‘60s, we have more options than ever before. I don’t know at all what the goal should be, but that’s the point.
I alone cannot conceive of what the next goal even might be, and so, however blind it may seem, that is why we must accomplish it — for the sake of focusing our national psyche on a common goal derived from our natural human impetus, to unify in this divided time, or simply “Because it is there.”
Gabriel Oldfield is a teacher and writer from Bangor.