By Roger L. Simon
July 21, 2019
The Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903. Fifty-nine years later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, and seven years after that Buzz Aldrin became the first man to fly to the moon and play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the moon - thanks to the portable cassette recorder he took with him. In a certain sense, the moon landing was the culmination of the tremendous inventive energy of the nineteenth century (if I had to pick a so-called "greatest generation" it would be somewhere in the latter half thereof). Half a century from the Wright Brothers to The Right Stuff - from nosediving into the neighbor's cornfield to walking the surface of the moon - followed by half a century devoid of giant leaps and even small steps.
In 1961, before the eyes of the world, President Kennedy had set American ingenuity a very specific challenge—and put a clock on it:
'This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.'
That's it. No wiggle room. A monkey on the moon wouldn't count, nor an unmanned drone, nor a dune buggy that can't take off again but transmits grainy footage back to Houston as it rusts up in the crater it came to rest in. The only way to win the bet is with a real-live actual American standing on the surface of the moon planting the Stars and Stripes. Even as it happened, the White House was so cautious that William Safire wrote President Nixon a speech to be delivered in the event of disaster:
'Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace...'
Yet America did it.
Four decades later, Bruce Charlton, professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham in England, wrote that "that landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achieve- ment of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans." That's a good way to look at it: the political class presented the boffins with a highly difficult and specific problem, and they solved it—in eight years. Charlton continued:
'Forty years ago, we could do it—repeatedly—but since then we have not been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.'Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer wanted to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something.... But I am suggesting that all this is BS. . . . I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75—at the time of the Apollo moon landings—and has been declining ever since.'
Can that be true? Charlton is a controversialist gadfly in British academe, but, comparing 1950 to the early twenty-first century, our time traveler from 1890 might well agree with him. And, if you think about it, isn't it kind of hard even to imagine America pulling off a moon mission now? The countdown, the takeoff, a camera transmitting real-time footage of a young American standing in a dusty crater beyond our planet blasting out from his iPod Lady Gaga and the Black-Eyed Peas or whatever the twenty- first-century version of Sinatra and the Basie band is. ... It half-lingers in collective consciousness as a memory of faded grandeur, the way a nineteenth-century date farmer in Nasiriyah might be dimly aware that the Great Ziggurat of Ur used to be around here someplace.
Those "Space Age" astronauts were men of boundless courage and determination: they strapped themselves in and stared not just death in the face but death in hideous and unknown ways. Yet they were also ordinary men, who were called upon to do extraordinary things and rose to the challenge. These days we are unmanned in more than merely the sense of that Luna 2 expedition. Glenn and Armstrong are gone, and their surviving comrades are old and stooped and wizened, and yet the only giants we have. Space may still be the final frontier, but today, when we talk about boldly going where no man has gone before, we mean the ladies' bathroom. Progress.
The Cold War was fought as much on an ideological front as a military one, and the Soviet Union often emphasized the sexism and racism of its capitalist opponents — particularly the segregated United States. And the space race was a prime opportunity to signal the U.S.S.R.’s commitment to equality. After putting the first man in space in 1961, the Soviets went on to send the first woman, the first Asian man, and the first black man into orbit — all years before the Americans would follow suit.