July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the moon. While this feat didn’t feature direct combat against a hostile nation, it was part of the broader Cold War being waged against the Soviet Union.
President John F. Kennedy, a fierce critic and opponent of communism set the bar extremely high when, during his speech in Houston on September 12, 1962, set the goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him home safely before the end of the decade. He said we should set this as a goal, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
At the time of the speech, only four Americans had ever been into space combining for a total of six orbits around the Earth. To say the goal of putting a man on the moon in less than 10 years was ambitious is an understatement. Nobody even knew exactly how to do it, and some would say that it couldn’t even be done. To up the stakes, we were in a race with the Soviets to get there first. A race that would play a part in determine who would win the Cold War.
Three men would be chosen from a pool of America’s finest pilots to be part of the Apollo 11 mission that would land on the moon. All where current or former members of the military. Air Force veteran Michael Collins would serve as the Command Module Pilot, Air Force Veteran Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin was selected to be the Lunar Module Pilot, and test pilot and Navy Veteran Neil Armstrong the mission commander.
Although three men made up the crew of Apollo 11, it was thousands of men and women who can say that they contributed to Armstrong and Aldrin’s moonwalk. It was men and women from many different walks of life, ethnic and religious backgrounds, all working to make the first humans to walk on another world, Americans. When Armstrong and Aldrin planted the America Flag on the surface of the moon, it became a testament to American resolve and American exceptionalism.
The 1960’s was a rough year for the United States. An unpopular war was raging in Southeast Asia. Race relations were strained. Two men named Kennedy were assassinated as was the leader of the black civil rights movement, Martin Luther King. Through all of that and more, America never waivered from the goal Kennedy had set.
On July 20, 1969, arguably the greatest feat in human history was accomplished when Neil Armstrong uttered the famous worlds, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The mission was accomplished, the goal reached with five months to spare. America had put men on the moon and returned them safely before decades end.
10 more Americans would walk on and explore the lunar surface, and two decades later, the Soviet Union would be no more. The Cold War would end with America and its western allies the victors.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk, we remember those men and women, civilian and military, who contributed to the success of the mission. We remember those who gave their lives so freedom could prevail. Those who stood tall and in the way of the communist scourge that brought about so much misery and death. The fight was not easy and did not come without great sacrifice; nothing worth achieving ever does. Victory was achieved because of a unified and committed people in whom failure was not an option.
“Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” – John F. Kennedy