- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

There are times in the history of a nation when we are right to pause, take stock of where we are, and remember who we are. Remembering such moments gives grounding, a glimpse of our future. We live in sobering times; that much goes without saying. On the other hand, there is so much more to the American story than is commonly told. It is worth hearing some of that story again.
In uncharted waters, the United States is a rock, a beacon. We are a nation that has dared as no other in human history, achieved as no other in human history, and inspired hope as no other in human history. America is blessed with a collective commitment to unchanging ideals, and to a few simple precepts things like honor, courage, democracy and a spoken desire to live as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Those are real aims, by real people, living in an imperfect world.
Somehow, we the people Americans have been strong enough to accomplish what we set our minds and hearts to, again and again. We have witnessed the rise of resolve in the face of grave danger, and the triumph of single-mindedness. That trait is highly American. We have not avoided all punches, but we have risen to our feet and beyond when the rare punch landed.
Many events in American history offer inspiration. One, not too distant in time, offers enduring hope and should rekindle resolve when the embers burn low.
The year was 1969. The Soviet Union a communist state bent on conquering space, humiliating the Free World, displacing and intimidating all Western nations, and able to spend without limit resolved to outstrip the United States in technology, and land human beings on the moon to show it. From there, they could control space. From the dominance of space, they could dictate terms for life on Earth.
Already, in 1959, they had struck into space with the first satellite. A mere two years later, they put the first man in orbit. Then came a series of return volleys: Alan Shepard's 1961 flight into space, John Glenn's historic orbital flight the next year. President Kennedy stepped up: An American would reach the moon and come back safely within the decade. The president was on record. The nation was locked in a Cold War, and the hot seat.
History is oddly ironic. Technology to meet this growing national security threat did not exist. What existed was simpler, yet immeasurably more important an American will to win, to demonstrate that the enemies of freedom cannot steal or intimidate their way into historical dominance. The American spirit was called upon. Like the nationwide response to September 11, Americans answered. In 1969, as in 2001, no one hesitated.
Americans seem destined to be tested. Perhaps that is the price of greatness, or the place where greatness is forged. As a nation, we have never yet failed.
In 1969, like at D-Day in 1944, when all of Europe shuddered and waited, the world held their breath. On July 20, Apollo 11's Eagle lander descended toward the moon. Here rode the work and dreams of every living American. Here rode the test of our will as a nation. Abort alarms sounded. Numbers got called out. The gauges showed falling fuel. Boulders got bigger in the LEM window. America did not blink, not in the lunar module, not at mission control, not in the heartland.
A quarter of a million miles from everything they knew, in a place where you could raise your thumb and black out the entire Earth, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong safely set down the LEM. America had done it.
Millions of Americans, joined by a billion human hearts in a hundred countries, raised their eyes to the sky. It was no longer dark and unknown. Fear was conquered, conviction vindicated and freedom safe at least for a time.
Today is different and not so different. We are a nation of people who must return to space, and do so for all the right reasons one of which is security. But we are much more than this. We are a nation that dares to believe that freedom is worth fighting for, that our debt is one to future generations. We are a diverse people, bound by the shared gift of conviction, belief and a heroic fiber. At times like this, as we recall the first moon landing 33 years ago, it is good to remember such simple things. Remembering does not end all worry, but it does remind us of exactly who we are.
We the people are not devoid of devotion, knocked back easily or long brought down. We are a people of resilience and resolve, happy to have peace, decidedly unwavering in our commitment to freedom. Someday we will reach again for the stars. We will do this because it is part of our destiny. As President Kennedy put it, "We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard." The key, as in landing on the moon, is to know your bearings. On occasion, it is worth glancing at the moon, remembering who we are, what we have done, we Americans. In uncharted waters, we are still the rock, the beacon.

Buzz Aldrin was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 11. Robert Charles was counsel to the House National Security subcommittee, conducting 1995-99 oversight hearings into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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