When America Was Truly Great

By QMC, USN (Ret.)

I wanted to be a spaceman, that’s what I wanted to be
But now that I am a spaceman
Nobody cares about me

Harry Nilsson


As I start to write this, it is less than 50 hours short of 50 years since Neil Armstrong took that “one small step” onto the surface of the moon. Whatever some people might think today, on July 20, 1969, there was little doubt in anybody’s mind that America was a truly great nation. For a few hours, the world sat transfixed as the glory of American exceptionalism was on display for all to witness. We had done it. Less than 12 years after the Russians had put that first basketball-sized thing into orbit, Americans had won the space race, and were walking on another world. What was, only a few years earlier, science fiction, had become science fact. We had reached the first waypoint on the trip to the final frontier, and were psyched about continuing the journey. We seemed unstoppable.

And then something happened. I’m not sure what, but something. Maybe we just misplaced our mojo.

Simple Fact of Life: Inertia alone will only keep something moving for so long. Eventually, you need to give it a push, or it will come to a stop.

Less than 3 1/2 years after Neil Armstrong became the first human to stand on the surface of another world, Gene Cernan became (at least for the foreseeable future), the last. What had seemed so special, so incredible, just a short time before, had devolved into “Been there, done that. Who do you think is gonna make it to the Super Bowl?” (Just to save you the trouble, since I know you were wondering, one month after the end of the Apollo program, the Miami Dolphins defeated the Washington Redskins 14 – 7, completing a perfect season. Something else that hasn’t been done since.)

Being afflicted with rapidly approaching geezerhood, I remember that time in our history. I remember how I felt, and I remember how WE felt. We had a pride, the likes of which I had never seen before, or since. During that brief flash of time, 12 men, all Americans, explored our neighbor in space. Lest we forget, they were:

Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11)
Pete Conrad & Alan Bean (Apollo 12)
Alan Shepard & Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14)
David Scott & James Irwin (Apollo 15)
John Young & Charles Duke (Apollo 16)
Gene Cernan & Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17)

Of these twelve, only four (Aldrin, Scott, Duke, & Schmitt) are still with us, as of this writing. Since all of them are in their mid to late 80’s, it seems inevitable, considering the way things are going, that the day will soon come that there are no people left on Earth that have ever been anywhere else. Sad, but at least that extinction is not irreversible. Maybe we can relocate our mojo, and get back to the business of fulfilling our destiny.

Enough for now. I just couldn’t let this anniversary pass without expressing my pride in what happened, and my disappointment in what didn’t.