On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced an ambitious goal: put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Earlier that year, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to successfully visit space and successfully orbit earth. While Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space on May 5th, his journey failed to bring him into orbit. The missions to the moon, fueled by the great power struggle of the Cold War, helped to establish America’s image of greatness throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Kennedy was not driven by international politics alone. Instructing NASA to put a man on the moon was also a form of strategic domestic politics. Americans were fascinated with this new, modern frontier. While they would turn out to be reticent in providing their tax dollars for the subsequent, expensive space programs, social support for reaching the moon remained relatively high throughout the ‘60s. Just two years after commissioning the lunar effort, Kennedy was assassinated. Lyndon B. Johnson, eager to carry the legacy of the late president onward, was an ardent supporter. In the summer after Nixon’s election, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. To this day, no other nation has put a person on the moon.
The story of the race to the moon is full of politics, intrigue, and adventure, but the most significant lesson of the NASA programs in the 1960s is this: joined by a common Soviet enemy, Americans found themselves united in space exploration. Dark moments mar our national memories of the 1960s; institutionalized racism, assassinations, and Vietnam. In the midst of these ghastly tragedies, the Apollo program gave our nation hope.
The American mission to reach the moon united Americans of every class, race and creed. In our world today, Americans face a new enemy: one another. Increasingly, fault lines have widened between everyday American citizens. Political ideology has become an idol and public discourse is the altar upon which we sacrifice our neighbor. In the dark days of the 1960s, the space program served to unite. In the 21st century, we again are in dire need of something to overcome the walls of vitriol we have built.
To recapture the spirit of hope and destiny, America must work to put an astronaut on Mars. For several years now, NASA has made it their priority to develop the early stages of a successful Mars expedition. But the date for launching a human mission to the red planet has been postponed many times over. Right now, a lack of funding and public support makes achieving this unlikely. But if Americans and their leaders are willing to move past their partisan bubbles and support this ambitious effort, we might see a resurgence of unity.
Putting a manned spacecraft on the surface of Mars is a logistical challenge and would require extensive funding and sustained public support. And yet, in the face of all these challenges, it seems that unity could emerge. It did so in the 1960s and who’s to say it could not again inspire and renew. If President Trump expands his support for NASA and a future Democratic President fights to retain funding for an expedition to Mars, the bipartisan nature of such an endeavor could do wonders for American public discourse.
Sending a person to another planet is not a surefire way to fix a stumbling democracy, but the human mind has always been enamored with the wonder of outer space. If Americans across the political spectrum can set aside their vitriol and link arms in supporting a space expedition to Mars, perhaps a small slice of our broken democracy will be repaired.