In the 2008 space documentary “When We Left Earth,” while addressing the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders remarked that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were “humans” who “just happened to be Americans.”
Last year, Canadian actor Ryan Gosling played Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazell’s biopic “First Man.” In an echo of Anders’s comments from a decade earlier, Gosling raised the eyebrows of many Americans when he said the moon landing was “widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that’s how the team making “First Man” chose to view it.
These statements are part of a trend of historical revisionism that paints every American achievement as universal and global while portraying the nation’s past sins as exclusively American. In truth, NASA’s missions in general—and the Apollo 11 moon landing in particular—represent an odds-defying triumph of American exceptionalism.
The NASA Missions Awoke America’s Competitive Spirit
Like many of the most inspiring adventures in history, the American moon landing is a comeback story. The United States began the space race trailing the Soviet Union. In 1957, the U.S.S.R. stunned the world when they successfully launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit. The first man in space was not an American but Soviet Yuri Gagarin.
Those involved in the first days of NASA were flabbergasted at the early Soviet success. Space correspondent Jay Barbree recalls the sentiment of the time: “These people couldn’t build a refrigerator…how can they get into orbit?”
Rather than looking at the initial score in the space race and giving up, Americans saw the deficit they had to overcome and were emboldened. The Soviets touched a nerve. Unknowingly, they reinvigorated the determined, persevering, and rugged streak embodied in the very nature of the United States. In the drive to remain the preeminent leader in science and engineering, the NASA missions tapped into something deep within the American character.
The space program that led to men landing on the surface of the moon is part of the grand narrative of Americans braving forth and conquering the unknown. The Apollo program and the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded them were victories of innovation, adaptation, and a hungry (and distinctively American) competitive instinct. Although there were certainly some non-American-born engineers and scientists working for NASA in the 1960s, the entire endeavor was fundamentally American in its ethos.
Americans Have Never Been Afraid of Challenges
When remembering the role of President John F. Kennedy in imploring Americans to reach for the stars, most remember his famous “moonshot” challenge to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. More revealing, however, is Kennedy’s underappreciated Rice University speech in September 1962. Kennedy spoke about one of the core aspects of America’s spirit:
This city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward…
As Edward R. Morrow had reminded the nation eight years earlier, if you dig into the nation’s history, you will find that Americans are not descended from fearful men. The pillar of American exceptionalism most relevant to the NASA missions is America’s embrace of competition and the fearless, enterprising spirit that accompanies it. The most famous line of Kennedy’s speech at Rice strikes at the heart of the matter:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard … [the] challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…
As Kennedy explained, pursuing challenge head-on and accepting the hardships that come with exploring new frontiers was part of the American ethos well more than a century before the nation’s founding. Writing on his establishment of America’s first successful colony in New England, Plymouth governor William Bradford remarked:
…all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages…all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne, or overcome.
Plymouth has been called “America’s hometown,” a moniker it deserves in more ways than one. Not just the site of the first Thanksgiving, Plymouth, like the Apollo program, had a history of early struggles. The challenges of founding and sustaining the burgeoning New England settlement were met directly—even embraced. So it was with the moon landing.
The Old West Forged the Keys to Win the Space Race
Kennedy was on to something when he harnessed the idea of a “New Frontier” during the 1960 presidential election race. After the U.S. Census of 1890 reported the closing of the American frontier in the West, historian Frederick Jackson Turner revealed that much of what made America so exceptional and successful could be tied to the exploration of its expansive frontier.
This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities … furnish the forces dominating American character. … At the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish. …Early Western man was an idealist withal. He dreamed dreams and beheld visions. He had faith in man, hope for democracy, belief in America’s destiny, unbounded confidence in his ability to make his dreams come true.
In the roughest days of the American West, the harsh, unforgiving, and trying experience of trying to eke out a living was a baptism of fire. The nation’s character was both forged and revealed in the conditions of the Old West.
Turner observed that America owes its most striking attributes to the frontier. It took a particular brand of dogged determinism to fight against the unforgiving climate, an often-hostile native population, and the ever-present threat of failure.
That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism … withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier.
These were the perfect combination of civilizational traits needed to win the space race. The characteristics required to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth were fostered in the West and ingrained in the culture of the United States.
Apollo 11 Flight Director Gene Kranz recalls how the early days of NASA were like “learning to drink from a fire hose.” Kranz and his entire team had to learn about trajectories, orbits, and “retrofire” essentially from scratch. “We had to virtually invent or adapt every tool that we used,” he says.
When NASA began project Mercury in 1958, they were driving blindly into the dark. Yet Kranz had confidence in his team. “We had the knowledge, the moxie, and the will to not only catch up but surpass at beat them [the Soviets] in the business of space flight.” Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, that victory was cemented in the annals of history.
America Cannot Afford a Lack of Pioneers and Explorers
Besides the American astronauts who took part in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, at the peak of the Apollo program, NASA employed more than 400,000 American men and women.
Not to be forgotten are the three Americans who gave their lives in the pursuit of the dream of putting a man on the moon. Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee perished in a tragic fire during the Apollo 1 mission, marking the first fatalities suffered by NASA, and sadly, were not the last. President Ronald Reagan reminded the nation after the Challenger disaster in 1986, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
As NASA and American private enterprise work together to return Americans to the moon, and then onward to Mars and beyond, we would do well to recall and pay tribute to the American spirit that got us to the moon 50 years ago. The challenge of discovery, the conquest of the unknown, and a thirst for adventure are part of the American ethos.
America is at its best when it embraces the pioneering ideals revealed by Bradford and Turner and articulated so movingly by President Kennedy. When John Glenn returned to earth after becoming the first American in orbit, Kennedy described space as “the new ocean,” remarking that the United States should “sail on it and be in a position second to none.”
The far reaches of space remain an uncharted frontier of limitless potential. As the world’s most indispensable and exceptional nation, America must always be ready to venture forward and explore what lays beyond the next horizon.