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EDITORIAL: One small step
The Eagle had landed. Forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. Most Americans who were alive at the time remember where they were at that historic moment at 10:56 p.m. Eastern Time when Mr. Armstrong made his one small step, a three and a half foot drop to the lunar surface after a journey of hundreds of thousands of miles.
The Apollo program is a monument to human ingenuity and vision. The moon landing came just 66 years after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C. More important, it had been just eight years since the first manned space flight, and every launch in that period was to an extent experimental. The cutting-edge technology that took us to the moon seems primitive by today’s standards; the lunar-module guidance-system computer had just 74 kilobytes of memory and could execute, at most, eight simultaneous tasks. But it was considered so reliable that there was no backup except for the abort system.
As Mr. Aldrin discusses on the facing page, the moon landing was one of mankind’s greatest achievements. It engaged every noble aspect of the human character — imagination, technical skill, leadership and physical bravery, among others. It was the apotheosis of man’s impulse to explore, to journey, to search for knowledge and to push back the boundaries of human experience. Footprints from the six landing missions still mark the lunar surface. We rightly are held in awe at the enormity of that simple fact.
But the Apollo program was being cut back even as the final astronauts left the moon in 1972. Three additional missions were scrubbed. Other priorities had interposed themselves. There was a limit to the persuasiveness of the argument that the space program ennobled us. Utility overcame vision. We stopped naming our spacecraft after gods. Orbital manned space programs such as Skylab and the space shuttle ascended, and the farther reaches of space were left to plucky satellites sent on one-way missions.
Space is increasingly important, and great technical strides have been made in the 40 years since Apollo 11. But few events have captured the imagination in much the same way as the moon landing. When people come together over the space program, it usually is because of tragedy, such as the 1986 Challenger explosion or the 2003 Columbia disaster. The only time since the moon landing that the people of the world united in affection for the United States was after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In these mean and lackluster times, Americans thirst for inspiration. Profligate and irresponsible government spending will bring us neither prosperity nor greatness. A transcendent vision will never be “shovel ready.” We long for the days when the human spirit took mankind farther than it had been before and has been since. Forty years later, we are still waiting to be that moved again.
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