Growing up in the 1980s I was obsessed with space travel. I read every book I could find on the subject, and memorized the names of astronauts from Gordon Cooper to Deke Slayton. The first space shuttle launch in 1981 happened when I was five years old, a perfect time to capture my imagination. The Challenger tragedy came at the height of my fascination, and broke my heart twice. Once for those who died, and a second time for the realization that space travel might not be the future.
Back in 1986 at the time of that disaster the last moon landing had taken place only fourteen years before. My childhood mind, which saw each week as an eternity, did not grasp that men had been sent to the moon in the very recent past. Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which feels like it took place a million years ago.
This is not merely because the vast majority of Americans do not have a living memory of the event. The very effort to go to the moon feels like something impossible accomplished by an ancient civilization, like the statues on Easter Island or the Egyptian pyramids. Men were sent to the moon and back — several times! — with computers weaker than the average pocket calculator of today. The device in my pants pocket is like a fighter jet compared to the ox carts of the massive mainframes you see in the moon landing documentaries.
It’s about more than technology, however. It’s about a society capable of even doing such a thing. The United States today seems incapable of even functioning. Our president is an addled television huckster yelling racist taunts at his opponents and throwing refugees in internment camps. Our bridges and roads are crumbling, people go bankrupt because they get sick, children live in fear of being shot in school, and the police are allowed to commit murder with impunity.
This is not to elevate America in 1969. The Vietnam War was raging, Richard Nixon was president, and black artists like Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron pointed out how money was being spent on rockets while America’s ghettoes worsened. This country has never lived up to its promise at any time in its history, but at least in 1969, amidst the war mongering and rank inequality, it was capable of a giant leap for humanity. The plaque planted on the moon did not gloat about America or claim the land for any one country, but said the mission was done “for all mankind.”
The United States of today is not capable of such flourishes. It is raising the walls and hardening the borders. It isn’t building rockets, it’s stringing barbed wire. Donald Trump has given up the veneer of any deeper universal moral mission for the country. His main goal with space is to militarize it with a Space Force, the polar opposite of the attempts in the 1960s to internationalize outer space.
But it’s not just American history on the downslope. The moon landing in 1969 may well be seen in the future as the apex of industrialization. It happened on the eve of the understanding in the 1970s that our resources are finite, and that our addiction to fossil fuels could eventually kill us. I was watching a moon landing documentary this week, and seeing the massive fires coming from the rocket I could only think about the greenhouse effect. As a child I used to think the stars were our destiny; now I am realizing that what looked like a thrilling first step was probably the end of the line.
So I sit here on this absolutely scorching July 20th, 2019, and I wonder what the future holds. My only hope is that the stunning ability of the space program to invent new technologies and marshal resources to put someone on the moon can somehow, someway be replicated by us in the here and now to save what we have here on Earth.
This piece originally appeared on Notes from the Ironbound. Follow Jason’s great work on politics, music, and American culture there.