As we made our way through 2019, the year was dotted with all manner of retrospectives on NASA, Apollo 11, and the moon landing. Part of this look over our collective shoulder included looking back at the early 1960s and the start of the space race during the Kennedy administration. Almost all the 50th anniversary pieces featured a clip of President John F. Kennedy announcing to Congress that we would seek to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade was over.
The other iconic clip was Kennedy’s moon speech at Rice Stadium in Houston. The day was September 12, 1962, and on that Wednesday afternoon, President Kennedy spoke about accomplishing something we didn’t know how to do or even where to begin. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. Today, the moon landing seems like it was inevitable—something of a forgone conclusion, certainly no big deal technically, yet from the vantage point of 1962, the task was impossible.
After hearing snippets of Kennedy’s speech several times on various anniversary shows, I finally took the time to listen to the entire speech. There is much in that speech to inspire and I could easily imagine adults at the time responding to the challenges set forth by Kennedy that day. Yet, listening in 2019 some 50 years later, you can’t help but notice what is lacking today in terms of national purpose.
While Kennedy spoke of going to the moon because it was was hard and not easy, those were not the words that caught my attention. The idea that stuck with me in contrast with today was the one that suggested that landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth would be a goal that would “serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
I think about how we are today and I wonder what it is that might serve to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” in 2020 and beyond. For sheer size and scope, I end up on global warming and climate change—how it will impact our children’s children and I ponder what virtually every scientist says will happen when average global temperatures increase several degrees Celsius and when I do, suddenly lowering carbon emissions and greenhouse gases in a serious way seems like a damned good way to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.
Yet, as a nation we do next to nothing to lead on this generational and global catastrophe-in-the-making because supposedly there’s a “lack of consensus” about the science. Consider that when Kennedy committed us to the moon landing: The amount of stuff scientists didn’t know about in terms of space travel and the moon was staggering. We’re not talking “lack of consensus” in 1962; we’re talking complete ignorance, yet we moved forward anyway.
On a side note, what’s happening today with global warming and climate science reminds me of the nonsense the tobacco industry was peddling back in Kennedy’s day to keep profits up. Doctors had pretty much connected the dots on smoking and cancer, yet the tobacco guys kept saying they needed more evidence. More recently, that same dance was used by the NFL when it came to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and concussions even though deceased NFL players’ brains showed CTE in 110 out of 111 autopsies. But they need more evidence. Go figure.
If it’s not leading on global warming and the consequences of a warmer planet, then what things might we tackle as a society in the next decade, not because they are easy, but because they are hard? What goals might serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills? What challenges are we willing to accept and what challenges are we unwilling to postpone?
Maybe more important than what we choose to take up as a nation is knowing which voice, if any, has the ability to capture and frame the current moment and use words to inspire us rather than incite us. A little less than a year from now, we’ll have an opportunity to once again make some choices about whom and what, in Kennedy’s words “will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” n