On July 20, 1969 at 10:56 p.m., as a boy one week shy of his 11th birthday and filled with wonder, I watched Neil Armstrong take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
In 1999, as the century was ending, the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was asked to name the most significant human achievement of the 20th century. In ranking the events, Schlesinger said, “I put DNA and penicillin and the computer and the microchip in the first 10 because they’ve transformed civilization. But in 500 years, if the United States still exists, most of its history will have faded to invisibility…. The one thing that for which this century will be remembered 500 years from now was: This was the century when we began the exploration of space.”
How, then, should we appreciate and celebrate this epic milestone in the history of our species?
This summer the Smithsonian published a piece by Charles Fishman called “Inside America’s Greatest Adventure — A New Behind-the Scenes View of Apollo 11’s Unlikely Triumph 50 Years Ago.” It’s an excerpt from Fishman’s new book, “One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon.” Fishman acknowledges that many Americans questioned why we were going to the moon when we couldn’t handle our problems on Earth. He admits how much of the space race was caught up in Cold War politics. But he goes on to say: “When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would go to the Moon, he was committing the nation to do something we simply couldn’t do. We didn’t have the tools or the equipment- the rockets or the launch pads; the spacesuits or the computers…. We didn’t even know how to fly to the Moon…. Ten thousand problems had to be solved to get us to the Moon. Every one of those challenges was tackled and mastered between May 1961 and July 1969.”
For many people, Apollo restored our faith that America could think big. It restored our faith that we could tackle great problems. It restored our faith that we could work together.
When Armstrong stepped on the moon, billions of people watched and cheered across the world. It was the largest TV audience in history. For a fleeting moment, Apollo united a country divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and nuclear disarmament.
For a fleeting moment, Apollo united the world.
The fact that Apollo did two things to usher in the digital revolution that has transformed our lives has been underappreciated. NASA was the first significant customer of the microchip and integrated circuits that now power everything. And NASA was the pioneer of real-time computing, and it was the first to take the daring step of entrusting human life to computer programming. The tens of thousands of people, working behind the scenes, who helped make Apollo possible transformed American know-how and our can-do spirit. Apollo gave an incalculable jolt to what we now call STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. Its dividends continue to this day.
But there is something else that Apollo bequeathed to us. On Apollo 8, astronaut Bill Anders took what is one of the most famous pictures of all time, the photo of the Earth floating in space above the moon. It was the first full-color photo of the Earth from space; it later was titled Earthrise. This single sensational image is credited with helping inspire the modern environmental movement.
What strikes you right away when you look at that photo is the color. There is our planet, a brilliant sphere of blue and white, in a sea of utter black. Nearly a half century ago, pioneering astronomer Fred Hoyle uttered these prophetic words: “Once a photograph of the earth, taken from the outside is available … a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
Astronaut Loren Action said, “Looking outward to the blackness of space, I saw majesty but no welcome. Below us was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to [us]….”
Astronaut Sultan bin Salman may have put it best when he said, “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
What these modern-day explorers are telling us is a truth at once ancient and radically new. Something we have always known but never really understood. We are one earth. We are one planet. We are one world. We are incredibly diverse but utterly interdependent.
I consider this not just the environmental, but the ultimate spiritual legacy of Apollo. We took one giant leap in our understanding of our own home — we need to work together in so many ways to cherish it and protect it.
Someday we will populate the solar system and beyond. That also is Apollo’s legacy. Yet even as we reach for the stars, we are still tethered to our earth home, like a newborn babe is tethered to its mother.
On this 50th anniversary of our greatest adventure, thank you to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins; thank you to those who walked on the moon, and to those who walked behind them to make it possible, and after them to build on their accomplishment. Thank you for showing us a new world. Thank you for our greater appreciation of our own world. Thank you for showing us what is possible when we dream.
Thank you for showing us the dawn of our collective future.
Barry L. Schwartz is the editor in chief and CEO of the Jewish Publication Society and the rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia.