On Saturday November 26, 2011 an Atlas 5 Rocket launched the Mars Science Laboratory Mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission was to land a rover called "Curiosity" on the surface of Mars. On Sunday April 1, 2012 the spacecraft was halfway to its destination. On Sunday August 5, 2012 the capsule descended on its parachute through the thin Martian atmosphere and landed on the surface of another planet in the same solar system as its home planet Earth. The rover has been sending back pictures of an alien and yet somewhat familiar landscape ever since. The stunning technological achievement we have just witnessed is an impossible task that has been accomplished by the ingenuity of ordinary American people. It is not the first time, however, that Americans have accomplished the impossible, nor will it be the last time. We are a people who have become accustomed to doing the impossible.
In 1969, forty-three years before the current MSL mission, America as a collective and unified whole sent a Saturn 5 rocket into space and 4 days later Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the surface of the moon. In 1969 I was eleven years old. My parents and I had been living in Houston, Texas for about one year. My mother worked for the space industry and NASA was right down the street from us on a road called Space Center Boulevard. Clear Lake City was a company town and the Space Program was a product of the Cold War years, the political purpose for which it existed was to beat the Russians to the moon.
In 1969 a gallon of gasoline cost 32 cents, a loaf of bread cost 23 cents and you could mail a letter for 6 cents. A new house cost about what a new car costs today and the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. Richard Nixon was the president. The war in Vietnam had been raging since late 1961 but Nixon announced the beginning of troop withdrawal beginning July 8, along with a ban on the use of chemical and biological weapons.
In 1969 the last edition of the Saturday Evening Post was seen on the newstands, the fastest commercial plane in the world made its maiden voyage, James Earl Ray confessed guilt in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul McCartney married Linda Eastman. Golda Meir became the Prime Minister of Israel. Dwight Eisenhower, the man who was president when I was born, died and Midnight Cowboy won the Best Picture Oscar. It was the first time an X-rated movie was ever awarded such an honor.
In 1969 the Queen Elizabeth II made her maiden voyage, construction began on Walt Disney World and tobacco advertising was banned on Canadian and radio television. Judy Garland died. Prince Charles became the Prince of Wales and Senator Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in a place called Chappaquiddick, New York.
On May 25, 1961 President Kennedy addressed the Congress to ask for funds to "clearly take a leading role in space achievement". "I believe this nation should commit itself", he said, "to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
On July 20, 1969 America as a collective nation achieved that objective. A group of men and women, ordinary American citizens from varied backgrounds and capabilities, worked together, embraced the goal set before them…and did what could not be done.
July 20th is still a big deal to me, and those people who transformed a dream into reality are still my heroes, but obviously because of the fact that a true American hero did indeed climb down the ladder of the Lunar Module and set food on the surface of the moon, the goal set by President Kennedy was attainable but at some point collective purpose replaced collective fear of failure, or the task would never have been be undertaken in the first place. The death of Neil Armstrong in late August 2012 came as a shock to all who remember the moon landing, but his life and astounding accomplishments should serve as inspiration to younger Americans to enter future fields of science and exploration.
In 2012, forty-three years after the Moon Landing, the American drive to prove to the world that anything is possible remains the core characteristic that makes Americans a distinct group of people. We have historically never ceased to believe that failure is not an option, that defeatism, mediocrity, dependency are traits that are essentially un-American to the core and must be eradicated if we are to survive as the nation. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, the unnamed thousands of scientists and engineers of NASA who paved the way for the incredible achievement of the men and women of the Mars Science Laboratory, ordinary Americans who embraced the impossible and defeated and proved that the best of America is yet to come, that we as a people have not yet reached the apex of our courage and that there are more impossible dreams that remain for America to conquer.
Rest in peace Neil Armstrong, great American hero.
Rest in peace Neil Armstrong, great American hero.
Flashback to 1969. (n.d.). Retrieved from Project Firebird: http://www.mprime.com/ProjectFirebird/flashback.htm