After our incredible victory in World War II, a series of sobering events created concern and stress among the American people. From our position as the savior of the world, we watched as the Soviet bloc grew out of the dark reaches of fascism. The threat appeared increasingly menacing as the Soviets exploded atomic and hydrogen bombs and almost drew us into nuclear war over Cuba. Then, in addition to the Soviets’ demonstration of nuclear power, they beat us into space with Sputnik, a blow that devastated the American psyche. At home, we weathered the vitriol of McCarthyism, the violent passions of the civil rights movement and the growth of urban blight. The Vietnam War was ripping the United States apart, destroying our self-image as the bastion against communism.
In the midst of this darkness, on the evening of July 20, 1969, Armstrong announced: “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” The world stood still, and we all watched on live television as Neil walked on the moon with Buzz Aldrin. Almost immediately, a new confidence and pride blossomed in our country. Neil didn’t do it all himself, but he was the embodiment of the extraordinary effort put forth by thousands of talented, dedicated people around this country and the world. America was transformed that evening.
Looking across our nation and our technical leadership today, it is easy to see how Apollo affected the future.
Right after Sputnik, two great men recognized the growing peril to the United States’ technical and industrial capacity to be prepared for the modern era. First, President Dwight Eisenhower formed NASA and began building the leadership team, industrial capacity and momentum of America’s drive to enter space. Eisenhower’s efforts enabled his successor, John F. Kennedy, to lay out a vision. Kennedy told Congress on May 25, 1961: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
It was crazy. Impossible. Audacious. But the seeds had been planted, and Americans knew they had to make it happen: Beat the Russians to the moon, and build a new technical and educational infrastructure to turn the vision into reality.
Invigorated by the moon walk, Americans began to search deeper into our known universe to understand its limits, size, origin and evolution. Perhaps the clearest link with Apollo are the shuttle and the space station programs, which taught us how humans can live and work safely and ever more efficiently in space. Observatories were launched that revolutionized our understanding of space, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. While looking outward, NASA has used satellites to help humanity understand the interaction of Earth’s land, seas, atmosphere and ice. And orbiting, landing, roving and fly-by missions within our solar system continue to capture imaginations, such as the Viking and Curiosity missions to Mars to search for life; the Galileo mission to Jupiter; and the Cassini mission to Saturn, which dropped the Huygens probe into Titan, its moon. These are the first steps toward believing that humans will one day venture to the far reaches of space.
This summer I witnessed the landing of Curiosity on Mars from mission control at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After the “seven minutes of terror” and Curiosity’s successful arrival, I knew that NASA still has the right stuff. NASA is filled with future Neil Armstrongs — outstanding rocket engineers, scientists and dreamers. I can think of no greater testimony to the entire Apollo team than to undertake another audacious activity that, although risky, will raise the American spirit and create opportunities for future generations. This next challenge will be the catalyst for the scientific and engineering breakthroughs central to the future vitality of our nation. We must reach for the stars.