The east face of the Washington Monument looked astronomically different between 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, and finally tonight. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a 363-foot, life-sized rocket was projected onto the obelisk, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. The display depicted a Saturn V model, the same kind that launched the Apollo 11 lunar spacecraft carrying the crew of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to outer space on July 16, 1969.
I remember vividly where I was that day. Only a child, I still understood something momentous was about to happen. There was an electricity in the air that catalyzed the minds and souls of an entire world. It wasn’t just an American event. It was a human event. But there was no question, as Americans, we felt a singular unity and kinship that day- we were the first to accomplish this feat. Everyone was glued to the TV for hours in anticipation. This wasn’t the day and age of digital enhancement or special effects. We literally waited, with baited breath, to see one brave man venture out into an alien atmosphere and step foot on the moon.
It was all in black and white with just dry conversation between NASA and newsmen to keep us interested- a feat impossible by today’s standards. What was said was forgettable, I can’t recall a word. I just know I was curled up in front of the TV surrounded by my brothers, sisters and parents- all knowing we were seeing history in the making.
John F. Kennedy had made a bold, and at the time, shamefully outlandish claim when he gave a historic speech before a joint session of Congress that set the United States on a course to the moon. In his speech, Kennedy called for an ambitious space exploration program that included not just missions to put astronauts on the moon, but also a Rover nuclear rocket, weather satellites and other space projects.
In response to Russia putting Sputnik into orbit above the earth he stated:
“If we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, now is the time to take longer strides-time for a great new American enterprise-time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.
While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.“
This was all via an ancient command module computer that had 64 KB of memory and was operating at 0.043MHz. In fact, it was less equipped than a modern toaster! Even a simple WiFi router or USB stick is more powerful. My iPhone is a million times more powerful than all of NASA’s computing power of that time.
Kennedy believed the ingenuity, vision, brilliance, unity and tenacity of the American people could accomplish anything. Even the impossible. Just eight years after that speech, on July 20, 1969, the whole world was about to see the fruition of his dream. It was a time when we, as a people, grouped together and grew beyond our petty differences. Beyond our petty greed and individual wants and made a national commitment to move forward. We made an unmistakable statement to the world- freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of spirit drives all mankind. The message was clear- Americans will always spearhead the way towards those freedoms whether they are here on earth or beyond its boundaries. Everyone will be fee to enjoy the spoils.
Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface. He was joined by all of mankind in a memory that lasts forever. We felt joy and pride with not just our American brethren but the entire world. We had done something no one thought possible.
After the devastation of World War II, Japanese internment camps, the McCarthy era, to the Korean War that destroyed millions of lives, and the fragile beginnings of the long overdue Civil Rights movement, we desperately needed a unifying, positive moment.
This was it. Something the entire country could rally behind. In that shining moment we stated loud and clear- American ideals, regardless of individual perspectives, make us who we are today. A bond far greater than the strife that threatens to tear us apart. We proved on that day, our motto:
E Pluribus Unum-Out
Of many, one. It continues to symbolize this nation’s commitment to not just all Americans, but the world. Together there isn’t anything we can’t accomplish.