Addressing Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy challenged America and set a seemingly impossible goal- sending a person to the moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy’s ambitious dream was realized by the Apollo program, and, since that time, manned space exploration has been an intrinsic part of both America’s national character, and its vision of the future.
As a result, our retreat from the final frontier is a clear illustration of the retrenchment accompanying the long, slow, slide of national decline.
The great retreat began with President Obama’s decision in 2010 to kill the Constellation program, which was supposed to be the successor to the now-retired space shuttle, and a key component in our return to the moon (as well as future missions to Mars). As Charles Krauthammer has written, America’s manned space-flight program essentially died that year “for want of $3 billion a year — 1/300th of [the 2009] stimulus package with its endless make-work projects that will leave not a trace on the national consciousness.”
The recent Republican presidential primary furnished further evidence of our nation’s withdrawal. Fifty-one years ago, when Kennedy said we would land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth, he was neither mocked nor derided. This stands in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted Newt Gingrich’s proposal during the primary to develop a lunar colony. Gingrich, alone among all the Republican contestants, saw manned space exploration as an integral part of America’s future. He proposed building on the foundation laid by Kennedy, and taking it to its next natural step- a human colony. And this vision, so similar to one that, in former times, stirred our souls and led to great deeds, was met with scorn.
Krauthammer, writing in 2010, drew a sharp contrast between Kennedy’s liberalism and Obama’s. In his view, Kennedy’s was an “expansive, bold, outward-looking summons” whereas “Obama’s is a constricted inward-looking call to retreat.”
But as the reaction to Gingrich’s lunar colony idea demonstrates, the inward-turning movement spans the ideological spectrum. Conservatives hear the bugles sounding the retreat in their own hearts as well. We can expect no bold visions from that quarter either.
Something intrinsic in our national character has changed- or been lost.
Historically, manned space exploration hasn’t been just another government program. It was an expression of our technological prowess and our faith in the future. And through the moon landings, we achieved something that transcended the boundaries of time, place, and culture, and spoke directly to the deepest longings and aspirations of the human spirit.
Going to the moon is what the United States will be remembered for, long after everything else we have accomplished has been forgotten.
This was brought home to me in a visceral way several weeks ago. I was in the backyard star-gazing with my six-year old daughter. The night sky has always been an amazing canvass for the human imagination. Looking up at it, we encounter the eternal- the deep depths of both space and time.
I was pointing out and naming some of the constellations and visible planets. Then we came to the moon. I told her that people, people just like her and I, had walked on the moon. At first, she didn’t believe me- going to the moon seemed impossible. So we went inside, and watched the Apollo 11 launch and landing on YouTube together.
It was a profound experience. The lunar landing is an event that, even after all these years, immediately evokes a sense of awe, wonder, and pride. I saw it on my daughter’s face.
But as we watched, my joy was mixed with sadness, because things like the moon missions are impossible now. Though we remain a big country geographically, we are fatally constricted in vision, spirit, and imagination.
We won’t be building moon colonies, or going to Mars. There will be no more great endeavors that capture the imagination- nothing like the Apollo program, the construction of the transcontinental railroad, or even the interstate highway system.
We’ve lost something fundamental. No more can-do optimism. No more broad horizons. The sky is, most certainly, no longer the limit. And as the laughter of our fin de siècle cynics fades, we’ll be left with an enduring civilizational silence- one in which no more dreams will come.
A nation at dusk, we are lowering the blinds.
Goodnight moon; goodnight America.