Every so often, there are events so monumental that where you were when you learned of it is indelibly fused in your mind.
Unfortunately, these seem most often to be tragedies, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched America into World War II are some examples that, depending on your age, might apply.
But one that sticks with nearly anyone who was old enough to form memories in 1969 involved an ordinary man accomplishing an extraordinary feat — stepping foot on extraterrestrial ground.
An estimated 20 percent of the Earth’s population at the time — 600 million people — saw Neil Armstrong step onto the powdery surface of the moon and heard him say: “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
There’s always been a bit of a controversy over that statement. Armstrong, who died last Saturday at age 82, had always insisted that he said “a man,” but even he couldn’t catch the article when he listened to recordings of his transmission. Still, we believe he knew what he said and we’ll chalk the discrepancy up to the technology of the time as it captured a signal sent from a quarter-million miles away.
With those words, Armstrong took the imagination of fiction writers and turned it into reality, setting the stage for 11 more men, including his shipmate Buzz Aldrin, to follow in his footsteps. Armstrong symbolized the best in us, a man who by all accounts was as down to earth as they come, but who will be forever linked to our collective dream of reaching for the stars.
The 1960s seem so far away now and it’s easy to forget what was going on in America, from the civil rights movement to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs to the assassinations of JFK, King and Robert Kennedy to free love and the counterculture revolution to the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union sending up the first satellite in 1957 and a man into space in 1961 had the United States on its heels, fearing it would be technologically eclipsed, but it also gave the nation something cohesive to shoot for — literally, the moon. JFK challenged the nation to send a man to its companion and bring him back to Earth before the decade closed. On July 20, 1969, it happened. And while the U.S. didn’t send the first artificial satellite into space, one it did send shortly before the moon shot beamed the accomplishment all across our world, the first time anything like that had been done.
America was challenged and it not only accepted the challenge, it exceeded it. There was a feeling that there was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished with a little, good old American ingenuity, and Armstrong with his low-key demeanor personified that.
That’s what America is missing today, a Neil Armstrong who symbolizes what we can be. Instead, we’ve allowed ourselves become a nation of loud, vacuous attention seekers who confuse shallow celebrity with actual accomplishments. The “stars” we reach for are in Hollywood, not in the sky. We’ve convinced ourselves that our best days are behind us. We find every fault we can with a country that is the freest on the planet while our government’s leaders pay for votes with borrowed money, essentially stealing from those who will follow us. Too few of us give and too many of us demand.
We need to believe again that we can do anything we set out to do. Such belief, as Armstrong demonstrated, can go a long, long way.