My earliest and most vivid memories of elementary school were when we would gather together in a single classroom and watch a rocket take off with a man aboard. I grew up with the Mercury Seven Astronauts, the Gemini program and eventually the Apollo Missions that culminated on July 20 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto the moon.
With all the turmoil of the sixties, Viet Nam and the civil rights movement, the space program stood as a unifying effort. American’s still say “When WE went to the moon…”.
Our history as a nation was marked by a succession of great engineering projects. The transcontinental railroad, Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn and later the Golden Gate Bridges, TVA and the Interstate Highway System come to mind. I am sure that those who went before me saw these projects as American accomplishments; things that WE did.
I once watched a program on the building of the Panama Canal. Another project that WE built. They showed pictures of laborers in a steel mill in Pittsburgh standing in front of a completed set of lock doors ready for shipment. It spoke of the pride these men felt, obvious from their stance and demeanor in the picture, in being part of such a momentous effort.
We have not engaged as a nation in a project of this magnitude since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. The space program continued with the shuttle program, remembered by many of us more for its failures than its successes, while the space program was increasingly seen as too expensive and an easy target for budget cutting.
The program most likely to advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge, the SCSC, was shut down before it even got started ceding the next generation of advances in physics to the Swiss.
I think it is notable in this political season that neither party speaks of what we could or should build. We hear only of what should be torn down or done away with. The great civilizations of the past that we study in school, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans are remembered for what they have built and the knowledge they have left behind.
Today we celebrate the life and heroism of Neil Armstrong even as we mourn his passing and I am left to wonder if his will be the last face of our collective accomplishment.