The Day We Reached for the Stars and Acted With Decency

Fifty years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first members of mankind to land on the surface of the moon. I was nine years old at the time. Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” inspired me to try to follow in his footsteps. It gave me a sense of vision that guided my career in first earning a Ph.D. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from M.I.T., and then going to work in the commercial space industry in Houston.

America in the 1960s was filled with challenges, including a cold war with Russia, protests over the senseless loss of American young men in Vietnam, and injustices related to the rights of minorities and women. Yet, despite those many challenges, it was a time of great optimism. Racism had the prospect of dying off as those who held those viewpoints from the past aged into oblivion. Education and science was embraced. Economic growth was rampant. The quality of medical care and life expectancy in America were steadily increasing. America was the world leader in technology. Gene Roddenberry filled our minds and our TV screens with a vision of a Star Trek into the future in which mankind left behind it’s pettiness to boldly become something far greater.

And yet today… on the 50th anniversary of that moon landing, one is forced to ask how the United States of America, the nation possessing such incredible ingenuity and resources to put the first humans on the moon and bring them home safely in 1969, could possibly be facing so many signs of societal collapse only half a century later.

“We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior.”
–Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy in the pilot for The Newsroom

America today is no longer the greatest country in the world. Our educational system has collapsed to the point of producing the kind of people who participated in the fascist rally in Greenville, North Carolina this past week… people who bask in ignorance, hatred, racism, corruption and denial of reality. While these people are not a majority of our society, they are a non-trivial minority and cannot be written off as an anomaly.

“Their vision of America is clear. It is white, male dominated, corrupt, anti-science, anti-history, anti-fact, anti-Constitution, anti-rule of law, anti-international system, pro-Russian, pro-dictator and pro-authoritarian, anti-environment, anti-human rights, anti-everything good that America has stood for.”
–David Rothkoph, The GOP Has Become A Racist Party

We have to face the fact that there are an unhealthy percentage of Americans who are very happy seeing America run as a fascist state that protects white privilege, even a grossly corrupt one under a president who is an avowed sexual predator and credibly accused serial rapist, and who consistently acts in a manner consistent with his being a Russian asset.

Life expectancy in America is declining. Our medical care system is the most expensive in the world while also consistently ranking among the very bottom among the developed world. Meteorologists are expecting that this will be the hottest weekend ever in the recorded history of the US (lower 48), and we have only started to get a taste of the kind of devastation that science tells us that the future holds for our children as the effects of global warming intensify. While America today appears to be economically strong, sound analysis of the repercussions of current economic policies shows it to likely be a short term “sugar high” resulting from unsustainable policies. In the long term, America is a country amassing ginormous national debt without the slightest ability to deal with the long term repercussions of our economic negligence.

And perhaps worst of all, America is a country mired in both ignorance and apathy, with a very large segment of the population unwilling to take action and demand change from their elected representatives. Most Americans today largely refuse to recognize the inevitable repercussions that will occur as current events domino to inescapable consequences… until the time comes that such events directly affect them and their families personally. This stems, of course, from a failure of our educational and journalistic system to give people the tools they need to distinguish real science from all the nonsense they are fed over social media from those with nefarious agendas. But the problem is more than that… while a very substantial segment of the population of Hong Kong recently took to the streets to protest a significant issue affecting their future, here in America we don’t see that kind of protest because we are largely a country filled with malaise and indifference.

Of course, by the time we are directly affected by the full repercussions of ignoring science and economics, and by America’s drift toward fascism, it will be far too late to do anything about it. And one could fairly say, “if they are going to be this stupid, they will get exactly what they deserve.” If it were not for the fact that those acting with such indifference will drag the rest of us down with them, such a viewpoint might have merit.

How we got from where we were 50 years ago to where our country is today requires a depth of analysis well beyond the scope of this column. But to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we are not where we are today is unproductive. Only if those among us who recognize our peril and care about our future start using their voices and their resources more pervasively does America have a chance to move in a more positive direction.

“It is one of those moments in the history of a country when there is a choice to be made, a choice between having a future and not, between growth and decay, between democracy and oligarchy, between what we dreamt of being and what even our founders feared we might become.” 

“We are approaching a great national decision about whether the American experiment will succeed or fail, whether this moment does what two world wars, a civil war and countless past misjudgments and missteps could not.”
–David Rothkopf in Every Trump Crime Should Be A Call To Action

The end of America, at least of an America that is a secular, capitalistic, representative democracy, could be upon us within the next fifty years, and quite realistically even within the next five years. But it surely isn’t a certainty that such will be the case. It is quite possible that Americans will recognize how close we have come to collapse, and pursue a course of renewal to put the country back on the path towards a better future for ourselves and our children.

“At some time or another, every historian of Rome has been asked to say where we are, today, on Rome’s cycle of decline. Historians might squirm at such attempts to use the past but, even if history does not repeat itself, nor come packaged into moral lessons, it can deepen our sense of what it means to be human and how fragile our societies are.”
–Kyle Harper, How Climate Change and Plague Helped Bring Down the Roman Empire 

Putting America back on a path to a better future will require a renewed investment in science, education and technology. It will require an understanding that an America immersed in a culture of white male privilege is not something that we should ever have any desire to return to again. It will require that we pursue an America designed to support all of its people who are good and just with equality. It will require us to face extraordinary economic and environmental challenges with every bit of ingenuity that America can muster. It will require us to again strive for the kind of future America envisioned having on that historic day fifty years ago when Neil and Buzz made a giant leap for mankind.

We have interesting times ahead. Compared to the challenges we face today, putting a human on the moon was child’s play.

🎶Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Cliff Kurtzman
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