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Today marks fifty years since men first visited the moon. It is a moment for all people, and surely all Americans, to feel pride. The lunar project harnessed unique American resources — our institutions of learning, our economic might, our democratic government itself — toward a project that demanded ingenuity, tenacity, and utter audacity. This was a transformative achievement, one of the rare historical break points that divides all prior time from the entire future: the dawn of an extraterrestrial species. We journeyed in the heavens, bending the tale of Icarus from tragedy to triumph, from nemesis toward apotheosis. It remains the pinnacle of human achievement.

The Eagle lander, photographed by Michael Collins,
aboard the Columbia command module, July 20. 1969.

Discussing the many challenges of lunar discovery in 1962, President John Kennedy famously said, “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. . .” I’ve heard some argue that the scientific fundamentals of the project — gravitational laws, planetary motion, the measures of potential and kinetic energy — were known since the time of Isaac Newton, and thus the work was merely perfecting topics in advanced physics. This is like saying that discovering the circulation of blood, done by William Harvey in the 1620s, qualified him to perform a heart transplant. Kennedy had it right: the project was uncertain and hard. Success required advances in engineering, chemistry, materials science, computing, and the construction of the most complex and powerful machine in all human history. It required astronauts — skilled pilots who also held advanced scientific degrees — willing to risk death. And indeed several died. In pledging America to the moon, Kennedy was daring.

John F. Kennedy pledges America to the Moon at Rice University,
September 12, 1962.

Watching several Apollo 11 documentaries recently, I’m struck with wonder for the natural world. There is the wonder of the vast and vacant lunar surface, “magnificent desolation,” according to Buzz Aldrin, shortly after he exited the lunar lander. And there is the awe of watching Earth from space, the one sight which elicited gasps from the taciturn astronauts. Listen to Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, with the first crew to orbit the moon, on December 24, 1968: “Oh my god! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up!” He grabbed his camera and snapped the photograph below, Earth beautiful and alive and alone:

Earthrise, Apollo 8, December 24. 1968..

Neil Armstrong later compared these Earth photographs to the experience of seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon and then visiting in person. We terrestrial mortals can appreciate only a fraction of Earth’s full beauty, as seen from space.

The other awe that I feel is in contemplating a natural world that has produced us, Homo sapiens, a species so clever that we escape Earth to explore this inhospitable realm. This is an ultimate, triumphant, and bizarre achievement of evolution. I have been imagining it as a play upon the famous “infinite monkeys theorem,” the notion that if God placed an infinity of monkeys before an infinity of typewriters, then one of the monkeys would write the complete works of Shakespeare. Evolution has transposed the proposition, to show what happens when an infinite rain of amino acids falls upon a planet, then bakes in an eternity of solar radiation: some few of the sneaky bastards assemble into DNA, escape the primordial muck, become sentient, and soon astronauts are taking pictures on the moon. And if we did arise from this ancient interstellar rain of amino acids, from molecules cooked in the furnace of distant stars, then perhaps visiting the moon is not leaving home, but merely stepping out from the nursery.

Photograph of Buzz Aldrin, with Neil Armstrong reflected in his visor, July 20, 1969.

This is also a moment to consider with awe the power of the scientific tradition. In just sixty-six years, technology moved from the Wright brothers’s 1903 flight of 852 feet on a North Carolina beach, to NASA’s journey of 950,000 miles through eight days in space. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made a spluttering thirty-three hour trip over the Atlantic. Just four decades later, an American craft escaped Earth atop 7.5 million pounds of thrust, survived the vacuum and solar bombardment of space, disembarked at the moon, launched again into space, and finally withstood the inferno of re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Lindbergh navigated via hand-held compass and a paper map; Apollo 11 was precisely guided by a global network of radio telescopes. The pace and magnitude of advancement is astonishing.

Lift-off of the Apollo 11 mission, aboard a Saturn V rocket, July 16, 1969.

It is especially important to affirm this scientific triumph, for we live in a time of scientific illiteracy. Consider two obvious examples. On the political left, we hear that vaccines are unsafe or unnecessary. On the right, we hear that climate change is a hoax, or instead may be a useful change. Meanwhile, the scientific findings are clear. Generations of global research prove that vaccines save lives; anyone with a dictionary of health statistics can learn this. And man-made climate change, theorized since the 1890s, is now an observable fact. Seas are rising, glaciers are retreating, oceans are acidifying through absorption of carbon dioxide, and extreme weather occurs more commonly. These changes portend existential disaster.

These problems are not easy, but hard. If our lunar triumph means anything, it indicates that the scientific establishment is a massively powerful aide in understanding and addressing them. The scientific method — that practice of thought and experiment which captured the moon, split the atom, unravelled the helix of DNA, and now peers everywhere from the far reaches of the universe to the minuscule corners of subatomic space — has an unparalleled track record. The findings of science regarding vaccination and climate change are clear. One who willfully neglects science is not “skeptical;” he is ignorant.

Neil A. Armstrong, prior to the launch of Apollo 11.

One of my favorite details of the moon story is the fact that Neil Armstrong, the thirty-eight year old mission commander and the first to walk on the moon, grew up on an Ohio farm with no electricity. His humble origin underscores the audacity of the entire venture. He attended public school, with college tuition paid by military service. After visiting the moon, he returned to Ohio to teach aerospace engineering. This sort of life trajectory is the American story that we relish to the point of mythology, but he is the genuine article. He was an Eagle Scout who learned to fly in his teens. Charles Lindbergh was his hero. Flying to the moon, Armstrong carried a few wooden pieces from the original 1903 Wright Flyer, like some Medieval apostle bearing splinters of the true cross.

Man’s first powered flight, on December 17, 1903, with Orville Wright at the controls.

Reacting to Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Something bright and alien flashed across the sky. . . and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams.” On this fiftieth anniversary of man’s first visit to an extraterrestrial world, when men steered a bright and alien craft to the moon, let us remember our own best dreams and our best selves. We are Americans, heirs of the audacious lunar scientists, men and women who themselves were heirs of those who saved Europe from Fascist demagoguery and violence. We certainly have hard challenges now. But we Americans are blessed in intellect, resources, and daring. We do things that are hard.

Lunar photograph through my 8 inch Celestron telescope.

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