Mid-October, 54 years ago, something spectacular happened. Many Americans today struggle for context. Here it is. Today, we see ourselves as divided, uneasy, threatened, queasy, watching society fracture and seethe – but 1968 was true hell, until Apollo 7 launched.
You may say, “What, a launch changed everything?” Yes, here is why. If you can imagine, America was locked in what seemed like an intractable war for starters, Vietnam.
No one imagined a future memorial – half mile from me – commemorating 40,000 dead men. Men who believed in America, drafted, volunteered, unsupported by the public, vilified for stepping up, degraded on return, never fully understood, or appreciated, deserving far more than they got.
The Tet offensive was January 1968 through September, massive push to secure victory, like chasing mercury along the edge of a tub, nailing Jell-O to a wall, catching the uncatchable.
Riots hit Washington DC. How bad? Colin Powell told me busses surrounded the White House – to prevent assault. Through all of this there was a glimmer, the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Darkness was gathering, as it does, as it did in the mid-1800s, and again mid-1900s. A civil rights leader who pleaded for the American Dream. He was imperfect but courageous, who talked of peace not violence, unity, and not having “enemies of the State,” was assassinated.
The event was lightning to a fence, and circled the nation in pain, creating fissures. What followed? That night, mid-presidential election, Bobby Kennedy stood on a pick-up flatbed and told Americans – Black in particular – hold your head high, get beyond this with love and hope, look forward.
“What, love and hope, who are you kidding?” He was not kidding. Listen to his speech, it will stop you. Like his older brothers, one dead in WWII, the other five years earlier, or Theodore Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, and countless founders before him, people like Reagan after him – he believed.
So, things were dark. Americans shuddered. That was April, then came June. Bobby Kennedy, who was, for his faults, an idealist, and was trying to square a Harvard education, Catholic upbringing, his time as a war correspondent, fatherhood, brotherhood, and America’s tumult…ran for President – and was himself gunned down. As a Reagan Republican, let me be clear: He was about hope.
Darkness went darker. We think – and we are right – that the “lunatic fringe” on all sides is making headway against commonsense, those who believe in tradition, law, family, community, limited government, history, science, math, and faith. But in those days – the 1960s – were darker.
Making things worse, America was locked in an existential battle with the Soviet Union, a “space race” to the moon, surrogate for nuclear war, barely over the Cuban Missile Crisis, locked with the Soviets and Chinese in Vietnam, determined to defend democracy. Things were tough.
The “worse” was this: In February 1967, after John Kennedy declared America bound for the moon in 1961, and his assassination in 1963 – The“space race” full throttle, it nearly collapsed, a catastrophe. America’s Apollo 1 crew died – in the launch pad fire.
Now, think with me on this. That is the definition of darkness, America determined to win, then while facing three assassinations, battlefield calamity, tens of thousands dead in Vietnam, Soviets ascendant, national riots, and the symbol of our strength, Apollo, dead on the launch pad.
Suddenly, with the kind of resolve that turned everything at Trenton, and Yorktown for Washington, Gettysburg and Vicksburg for Lincoln, Normandy, Anzio, Bastogne, Iwo and Okinawa in WWII, America said “Hell no, this is not the end, this is just the beginning.”
That was Apollo 7, first manned Apollo attempt after Apollo 1, which killed three of America’s best. The Apollo 7 crew, Walt Cunningham, Wally Shira, and Don Eisele never doubted. They had to succeed, prevail, and get into space, prove Apollo’s capsule, rocket, and reentry worked. If they did not succeed, confidence in the program, truthfully in “who we were” would have foundered.
Hours and hours have I talked with Walt, a decorated US Marine, patriot’s patriot, determined and undeterred, calm, confident, and capable, sure of America as anyone gets. Was he fearful? No, the mission was for America, and ultimately “all Mankind.” He had crossed that bridge.
Was he aware of its importance? Of course, he sat on the review board, flew in Korea, knew the Soviet threat, and knew above all else how incredibly capable Americans were – the thinkers, planners, designers, engineers, builders, testers, everyone who was “all-in” – just as he was.
So, what happened? In an incredible argument for breaking inertia, turning the dial, changing everything in a moment, the way an attitude, resolve, heroes and miracles change everything, that Apollo 7 crew climbed aboard that Saturn candle, and America lit the fuse.
The mission, launched this month 54 years ago, was not just complete, pioneering, and a first that proved all seconds and thirds, and 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th missions possible. It was both first, and literally perfect – picture perfect during ten days, a total success.
What flowed from that success? Take a guess. Renewed confidence in ourselves, our ability to put political differences, tragedies, distractions, and recriminations aside. We remembered who we were, we Americans, how powerful goodness is for unity. We are unstoppable.
In a few short years, political violence ebbed, riots done, Vietnam over, and Americans did as we swore, Democrats and Republicans, engineers and astronauts – walked on the moon. We did that on July 20, 1969, credit to the crew of Apollo 7, who flew that perfect mission, tested everything.
So, when you think about where we are, what this incredible nation – like no other in human history – has done, remember this day and this month. Remember this incredible nation, close as any to heaven, and Apollo 7. Remember Walt, Wally, and Don – Walt, a confident hero like no other, and a brother.
Then, as they did, look forward – not backward. Look ahead not into the dark. Look at the possible, not events over which we have no control. Extoll – virtues of America. Dare to believe, as they did. We are not done, none of us. We are in the fight, Artemis, Space X, America. The mindset of one generation, leader, crew, or American – can turn the dial. It is time again.
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