As I recline on my front porch this week, cigar in hand, tumbler of whiskey at my side, I will take note of the nearly full moon rising in the East. That image, the one I’ve seen innumerable times, often takes me back to a very specific night 50 years ago. A night when the whole of humanity changed for the better.
I sat on the living room floor of our family home. White carpet. White walls. Chairs of dark brown wood and black leather, survivors of a bar fire years before in Tempe, Arizona. On television, the legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite narrated the greatest achievement of humanity as it happened. Live. And out our living room window the 10-year old version of myself saw that same gray/white satellite roaming through the atmosphere above.
That’s the moon I see today. The same one George Washington gazed up at. The same celestial body Julius Caesar found in the night sky. Our moon has changed little over the years. We, on the other hand, have lost and found our way time and time again.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is credited with setting the course for the successful moon landing, which occurred on July 20, 1969. Half a century ago. Yet, the journey began seven years before, with a speech he gave at Rice University in September 1962.
The salient part of that speech, the part most people remember and point to as a historic turning point in human history, is the point where Kennedy announces with conviction, “We choose to go to the moon.”
It’s a stirring moment. One the crowd reacts to with cheers and applause. But it is not the part I find most compelling. It is the line that follows I’ve been most affected by.
Our 35th president went on to say of the tasks he impressed upon the nation that we would engage in them, “Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
That’s critical insight. That concept matters. As he so eloquently put it on that warm Texas day, humanity achieves greatness when we push ourselves to achieve goals of benefit to humanity as a whole. When we aim high, we win. Emphasis on the word “we.”
He didn’t encourage giving favor to a specific voting block, or a particular state’s economy, or any one company over another. His goal was not to elevate one group at the expense of another. He urged us to strive for greatness against almost impossible odds. Which that generation did.
They succeeded, too. In fact, they succeeded to a degree that is almost unknown in our modern world. Certainly, when compared to the narrow focus of blame shifting and name calling our political system has adapted itself to in our time, Kennedy’s speech is that much more impressive.
Consider, John Kennedy was born in 1917. The airplane was not yet 15 years old. They were rickety machines at best. Dangerous and inconsistent in their structures, as well as the practices used to control them in flight. What we didn’t know about aviation still far outstripped what we did know.
And yet pilots, mechanics, and manufacturers persisted. Improving on the technology. Innovating with new materials, techniques, and procedures.
Jack Kennedy was only 10 years old when Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. Yet here he was 35 years later calling on the nation to do the improbable, to do it well, to do it safely, and to do it now.
That’s leadership. That’s vision. That’s exactly what it took to unite this nation and its people to undertake a mission the entire world would take pride in. And the majority of Americans opposed the idea from the outset.
That’s true. Just like today, polls showed most of us thought the president was on the wrong track. We were wrong. Kennedy was right. And humanity benefited from the effort in ways we couldn’t have imagined at the time, and most don’t recognize or respect today.
Our parents and grandparents were correct. Anything worth doing will be difficult to do. Too many of us have lost that drive to achieve. Certainly, on the national level we have. Too much thought goes into “me,” while very little goes into “we.”
Thankfully, small groups made up of rare individuals continue to guide and inspire us, as they so often have in the past.
It was 66 years ago when a young man named Paul Poberezny gathered a couple dozen like-minded folks together to form the Experimental Aircraft Association. The EAA. That humble, dedicated, hard-charging group built an organization that promoted an idea that will draw nearly a million visitors to the sleepy town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, over the next 10 days. They changed the world in a very meaningful way, as the AirVenture attendance numbers attest, year after year.
A powerful vision coupled with dogged commitment can be a very powerful thing.
Eighty years ago, P.T. Sharples and a small group of aviation enthusiasts gathered around a table to create the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. AOPA. The members in that room grew the organization over time to be the largest association in aviation, dedicated to protecting our freedom to fly, while keeping aviation affordable, safe, and fun.
It was hard work. But it was worth it.
Our world is changing today, thanks to a South African immigrant with a penchant for computer code, rocketry, and the dedicated use of free-electrons. Elon Musk has fought an uphill battle for years to achieve the unachievable. Today, he oversees the first new American car manufacturer to set up shop in half a century.
His brainchild, Tesla, produces one of the safest, most innovative, and best-selling cars in the world. He also envisioned and created SpaceX, which leads the private market in rocket technology, as well as the successful launch and recovery of spacebound hardware.
As we celebrate the moon landing, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the globe set their sights on AirVenture, I hope we will start thinking big again. Looking long-term. I hope we’ll once again become the people who grasp for the brass ring, developing life-changing technologies as we conquer the unknown…again.
We’ve done it before. We can do it again. If only we could focus on the goal, work together to reach it, and accept the risks inherent in great adventures into uncharted territory.
I hope 50 years from now my children and grandchildren will be celebrating a human achievement as bold and transformative as those we’ve been fortunate enough to witness.