Our View: Where were you when the ‘Eagle’ landed?

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The following is a reprint of the editorial the Alexandria Times ran on July 23, 2009, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing.

Some events are seared in our memories forever.

If you’re old enough, you remember where you were when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when JFK was shot, when the Berlin Wall was torn down or when you learned about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The trip of Apollo 11 in July 1969 ranks among those seminal events in our collective experience: we were all mesmerized by Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind.”

Only when viewed in the context of the times does the full significance of the lunar landing become clear. By July 1969, one of the most tumultuous decades in our country’s existence was drawing to a close. The 1960s saw the relative harmony and peacefulness of the post-World War II era not just evaporate but be blown to smithereens.

A sense of American invincibility was replaced by fear that we were losing the Cold War, disgust that thousands of Americans were dying in remote and seemingly insignificant Vietnam and alarm that civil unrest was pulling our country apart at the seams. We had lost a president, John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. to assassin’s bullets. African Americans were rioting in our cities in protest of continued discrimination and students were rising in opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a terrible time.

In the midst of this anger, angst and disillusionment came Apollo 11. Our young president, JFK, may not have lived to fulfill his potential, but by landing on the moon we would fulfill the challenge Kennedy issued to congress in May 1961, when he urged America to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The lunar landing was significant for what it represented as much as for what it actually was. It represented our ability to dream big as a nation, then work triple time to make the dream a reality. It was a testament to the ingenuity of mankind – all of the big problems around us suddenly seemed more manageable in the context of a trip to the moon. It showed us that despite all that was tearing us apart, we could still come together as a nation, as young and old, as rich and poor, as white and black, to cheer an achievement for the ages.

Although it would be another 20 years before the United States finally prevailed in the Cold War, Armstrong’s steps on the moon were a statement to the world that America was the greater of the two superpower contenders. Despite the tumult, America’s constitutional democracy and free enterprise economy would survive. The Soviet Union’s socialist government and economy would not.

Of course, the moon landing did not solve all of America’s ills. We still had to endure the Kent State riots the following year, the blemish of Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation and the stagflation and malaise of Jimmy Carter’s years as president. Improvements in race relations and in lessening poverty took place but progress was distressingly slow.

As we look back through 40 years of history to July 1969, our vision has benefitted from the clarity that time affords. It now seems obvious that we were destined to win the Cold War – at the time it seemed anything but. The state of technology in 2009 would have astounded us in 1969, and the moon mission played a great role in advancing technological achievement.

But the main lesson from Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon is that Americans yearn to be great and that we long for leaders who will call us to greatness. That’s why the magic of JFK endures; it’s why Ronald Reagan remains beloved by so many. We elected Barack Obama president last year in the hope that he will similarly inspire us. Reagan said, “America is too great for small dreams.” And he was right.

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