FIFTY years ago tomorrow, with dusty footprints on a faraway world, the United States stamped “mission accomplished” on a goal more audacious than anything the nation has achieved since.
With about 20 percent of the world’s population watching, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
Less than eight years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had thrown down the gauntlet. The nation’s goal, he said to Congress, was to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth “before this decade is out.”
The mission seemed to be as much about national morale as meaningful achievement. It meant we had defeated the Soviets in the space race, an endeavor that started in 1957 when the USSR scared Americans half to death by sending the world’s first artificial satellite into space.
If our most feared enemy had nuclear weapons and could send vehicles beyond the reach of any existing defenses, the possibilities were endlessly dire. When Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in 1961, Americans’ unease only intensified.
Throughout the 1960s, the U.S. threw its might and ingenuity into the Apollo project. By July 16, 1969, NASA was ready to make good on Kennedy’s challenge.
A Saturn V rocket blasted the Apollo 11 crew of Armstrong, Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins toward the moon. Four days later, the lunar module landed at 4:17 p.m. Eastern time.
At 11:56 p.m., Armstrong descended a ladder onto the Sea of Tranquility, uttering his famous words: “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Most Americans living now who were alive then know where they were when it happened.
There were other trips to the moon, most memorably the Apollo 13 mission of cinematic fame, but July 20, 1969, was really the apogee of our space adventure, at least until now.
Many asked what was to be gained by returning to the moon. By 1973, 59 percent of Americans in a Gallup Poll favored cutting space exploration spending. And so we did.
Fifty years later, a plaque and an American flag planted by the first two men to walk on the moon remain at the Sea of Tranquility (or so we hope) to remind any future visitors that Americans not only got there, but we were the first and only to do so.