Neil Armstrong lived the American dream. His life should inspire us to make that dream a reality again today. We have many challenges, but our society still has so much more than it did when Armstrong began his journey that took him from small town Ohio to the moon.
Armstrong was born into a society stuck in Depression. When he turned three, in 1933, one-in-four Americans were out of work. The country’s economy was contracting and no one had a solution, especially not the smiling new president from New York, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt famously told Americans “they have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Young men, like Armstrong, had to overcome the fear all around them and manufacture new sources of hope.
Things became worse before they became better. Armstrong watched his country suffer a devastating attack at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The nation then spent nearly four years sacrificing at home to fight formidable fascist adversaries in Europe and Asia. The nation had never fought on this scale before. It had to learn, and it had to learn fast.
Armstrong’s career of public service began in the shadow of the Depression and the Second World War. He became a U.S. Navy aviator, flying 78 missions during the Korean War. He was part of a new Cold War generation that brought new talent, ingenuity, and courage to making the world better than it had been. He imbibed the progressive “can do” spirit of a large cohort of young citizens who joined the military, attended university, and defined their lives by their idealism and their service—not their bank accounts.
Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson recognized the potential for Armstrong’s generation of young citizens. Johnson’s driving ambition was to create opportunities for the most talented Americans, enabling them to contribute more to their society in the struggle against communism, poverty, and bigotry. This larger-than-life Texan believed that space exploration was a central part of pushing Americans to achieve more. He played a vital role in creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and placing one its main facilities in Houston.
Lyndon Johnson’s predecessor in the White House, President John F. Kennedy, promised that Americans would reach the moon, and NASA did the work. The organization created the Apollo moon-landing program in 1963. Neil Armstrong was one of the first recruits. He launched into space on the Gemini spacecraft in March 1966. Then three years later he had the opportunity to lead the first moon landing as the commander of the Apollo 11 mission.
It seems so long ago. Amidst the riots at home, the war in Vietnam, and the deep partisan divisions at the time, the Apollo 11 moon landing on 20 July 1969 brought Americans together to appreciate their potential as a country. The moon landing inspired viewers in a way that no television event had done before or since. It showed that citizens could conquer great odds, could innovate to solve big problems, and could follow big dreams. It captured both the possibilities of forward-looking government and the integrity of public-minded citizens. The moon-landing reminded people of how much Americans could accomplish when they worked together and for something more than themselves. This was not about markets or entitlements. It was about commitment, sacrifice, and investment as a society in our best qualities.
We can do the same today. We have so many more resources than Armstrong’s generation. We have so many possibilities. We have turned away from space because we have, I am sorry to say, forgotten who we are as a society. American greatness is the greatness of big dreams. We are a society of frontiers and possibilities – a society that is always re-making itself.
We need to push that cycle again. We need more Neil Armstrongs, more Lyndon Johnsons, and more intelligent investments in selective programs like Apollo. Yes, we need to cut some waste. Yes, we need to tighten our belts. But, yes we also need to invest in making ourselves better. Where are those investments today? How can we dream big again? I hope Neil Armstrong’s life inspires us to define a new frontier for a country that must recover its deepest possibilities. The time has come for another generational calling. Perhaps our best universities can lead the way…
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at UT, where he has appointments in the Department of History, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and the Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Photo courtesy of NASA