Op-ed: What the Moon meant for America, and what's been lost of late

We used to dream big. Really, really big. Fifty years ago today, the United States of America put a man on the moon. The roots of this incredible endeavor began much earlier, starting in the late 1950’s with unmanned lunar missions of varying success. In what has become a seminal moment in our country’s history, President John F. Kennedy, while addressing the Congress in 1961, called for a national commitment “before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

It was an audacious goal, but Kennedy knew what its success would mean for the United States, and not just in terms of technological achievement. He wanted a government program that would capture public imagination, bring humanity together and reassert America’s prominence on the global stage. The Apollo program did exactly that. It was a big idea, and it had a big impact on the course of human history. It changed the world for the better.


I remember where I was when Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the moon. I remember the swell of pride that came from seeing an American take those first steps, and the awe that accompanied it. We landed on the moon. All of us, in a way. There were no Democrats or Republicans watching that unbelievable moment. Only Americans. We were united by the scale of the achievement, and by the skill, dedication and intelligence we as a nation brought to bear in solving a seemingly impossible problem.


Incredible, life-changing science has come out of the space program. Everything from solar panels and battery powered precision instruments to heart monitors and breathing apparatuses can trace their beginnings to NASA. The Internet itself, first conceived in 1962, was developed by the government agency we established as a response to the Sputnik launch by Russia in 1957. Fifty years later, we aren’t just benefitting from the gains made during the space race; we live in a world built on that foundation. Cellular antennas, GPS, touchscreens, microprocessors — all of these technologies and more were born in the laboratories that the U.S. government created and funded during the scientific boom of the second half of the 20th century.


But while many of the technological advances remain, much of the unity and industriousness that marked the early days of the space program has dissipated. Polarization has turned even discussing major initiatives into a nearly impossible task. Solutions to some of our biggest problems — climate change, inequality, health care — remain elusive, not because we can’t solve them, but because we won’t even talk about solving them. Today, public funding for science and education is under constant attack, and NASA itself has seen its budget slashed to an absurd degree.


Government is treated in some circles as a specter out to compound our problems, when in reality it’s the exact opposite. Kennedy knew that only an entire nation — a unified American people — with big ambitions could accomplish a goal as grand as landing men on the moon. His work to shape public opinion in support of the Apollo program brought our nation together and led to some of our greatest achievements.


So, on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing, let’s take a page out of Kennedy’s book and dream big again. The problems we face today, though large in scope, are not insurmountable. In fact, for some, the solutions are staring us right in the face. We know we need to reduce carbon emissions and move to 100 percent renewable forms of fuel. We have the technology to do it, even now.


A robust commitment, like the Green New Deal, would have the potential to transform our economy, spread economic equality, and save our planet for future generations. But without the support of the American people, and a Congress willing to both acknowledge and address the problem, we simply can’t move fast enough to meet the challenge.


In 2019, we still have the tools, skills, and American ingenuity to do big, incredible things. We just need the will.


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