For those of us who are Baby Boomers, one of the most often used rallying cries of our generation when a difficult social, economic, or political challenge lay ahead of our communities, states, or nation was simply, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can . . . .”
The recently published book by Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon, captures the difficulty of this effort and what it meant to our nation — and in deed the world — at that time. It also raised for me a question for our times. [For those of you worried that I may be giving book spoilers here, trust me, this is just skimming the surface of the public record with a few teasers. You need to read the book to get the good stuff.]
The year was 1968 and America was a divided nation. In Southeast Asia, the United States was entangled in the Vietnam War quagmire that would ultimately claim over 58,000 American lives. Rising discontent about the war had chased away the sitting U.S. President from even seeking re-election. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Two months later Robert Kennedy had also been assassinated. Bloody and deadly race riots had erupted in major U.S. cities. The Democratic Convention had disintegrated into chaos as protesters and police clashed in escalating violence on the streets of Chicago. A close contentious presidential election had left few hopeful about the future.
Then in late December the United States launched Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders on Apollo 8. President John Kennedy had seven years earlier set a goal for this country to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The reasons were not entirely altruistic. The United States was locked in a bitter Cold War with the Soviet Union and advancement in space exploration was a high profile competition between our two countries. What’s more, for much of the early years of this space race we were coming in second. First satellite in space — Soviet. First man to orbit the Earth – Soviet. First man to spacewalk – Soviet. First woman in space – Soviet. The mission of Apollo 8, however, was to be the first space vessel to leave Earth’s orbit, travel to and orbit the moon, and return its crew safely to Earth, thereby finally leapfrogging our country ahead of the Soviet Union and setting the stage for the first American moon landing.
The Apollo 8 mission came with perils. Three American astronauts had been burned alive less than two years earlier while preparing for Apollo 1. The Saturn V rocket that would be launching the mission had been tested only three times and two of those were considered far short of successful. One NASA official privately gave only marginal odds at full achievement. These uncertainties were kept quiet but everyone knew that this was something unique in the human experience. Three brave astronauts, representatives of all of mankind, would be leaving our home planet, and everyone could look up to the moon and know that for the first time that someone would be looking back at us.
Once launched, the mission captured not only our nation but the entire world’s attention. The televised transmissions from space were watched by hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Prayers were offered at the Vatican, in cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, and people’s homes. On Christmas Eve, as the astronauts’ circled the moon, the three astronauts closed a televised message to all of us with a reading from the creation story in the Book of Genesis.
After the mission, the astronauts received public accolades, ticker tape parades, and thousands of individual good will messages. One telegram that most touched Frank Borman simply read, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
Anyone who is a student of American history knows that the strife and divisions of that year were not put to rest by Apollo 8 or the moon missions and landings that followed it, but the space program did instill a feeling of optimism about the future and our ability to successfully attack any man made problems here on Earth. After all, as the saying went, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can . . . .”
Today, we also face great dangers and deep divisions . Around the world, China and Russia challenge us economically and militarily, long and bloody conflicts are being fought against terrorist forces, state and privately sponsored rogue cyber attacks are on the rise, millions of innocent people are being displaced, and dangerous fanatics are grasping for weapons of mass destruction. At home, we have deep political factionalism, racial strife, cultural clashes, growing cynicism, and gridlock in our government that intensifies our anxiety over our future.
As we face these serious man made challenges, what will be our rallying cry this time to give us the optimism and courage to overcome them? What hopeful unifying event will we use to fill in the following blank: “If we can _____________, we can solve . . . ?”