America is unique in many ways. Three are belief, genius, and persistence. Many nations have citizens who believe, are gifted, and persistent – but none has a culture, history, and identity built on those values. And nothing says it like Apollo 11’s July 20, 1969 moon landing. Americans are remarkable.
Fifty-four years, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins headed for the moon in a rocket larger than any built before or since, fighter pilots, fear in check, ready to manage what came, aware the world needed a success, global security resting on what they did – so far from Earth a thumb covered all humanity, working on a computer with one-one millionth the power on the mobile phone you own.
Those are true facts, but what made the mission a success was more than the courage and tenacity, perfectionism and fearlessness of three men, one of whom is still with us – Buzz Aldrin, incredibly a healthy 93, who married the love of his life Anca last January, was promoted to brigadier general in May.
What created the unlikely success of Apollo 11 – a mission conceived ten years earlier, pursued with the singlemindedness of Jefferson in the Declaration, Washington through the Revolutionary, American military men and women in all our wars – was America’s character.
When much of the world feared the future, Soviet and Chinese Communism rising, nuclear war a palpable concern, global leadership in short supply – Americans allowed themselves to understand their own uniqueness, the role we played in history, and must again.
In 1960, young president John F. Kennedy succeeded the distinguished former WWII Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower – both former military men, both confident in the possible, both daring, unapologetic, profoundly patriotic, different in style, but not their faith in America.
Their belief in the future – in America’s obligation and ability to lead – was rooted in different life experiences, but equally firm, no chinks, no apologies for that conviction, no doubt about our obligation to step up, inspire, consolidate, protect and shape the future, no shying or crying.
Eisenhower left office concerned about Soviet intentions and war, as well as growth of bureaucracy, an unholy alliance of big government and big industry. His biggest fear was the Soviets – that they would outflank us where it mattered most, in technology, specifically space. Kennedy shared those fears.
When the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, Kennedy rallied the nation. With support of both parties, he offered a daring “throw down,” alternative to nuclear war – a race to the moon. Why? “We do these things … because they are hard,” he intoned.
What followed was an extraordinary turn in human history. Before the world, the most established republic on the planet risked all.
Despite cultural fissures, fears of violence internally, Vietnam looming, turbulent race relations, and intergenerational conflict, we pulled ourselves into alignment with Kennedy’s singular goal.
The entire nation rose to the occasion, committed ourselves – as a nation – to get to the moon, in that way help lead the world out of perpetual fear, into a belief in the possible.
The belief part – was shared by all Americans, regardless of politics, age, race, economic status, education, geography, ethnicity, or any other way you could divide us, wanted to prove to the world our word was good, our resolve – when unified behind a goal – unshakable. We were all in for the moon.
Then came the genius part. Rather than naming engineers, chemists, physicists, dreamers and doers, suffice to say, the WWII generation and those who saw what they did began to conceive things no one had thought before, then – with determination – build them.
Never before had anyone undertaken as unlikely a mission, with stakes all humanity’s future, and resolved that a free people – let loose with their genius – could beat their communist opponent.
Fewer years lie between WWII and Kennedy’s pledge than between today and the 2008 recession. Having saved the world from fascism, America pledged to beat communism. Free people do such things.
Then came the persistence, much needed. The Soviets put the first astronaut in space. Of 20 unmanned Mercury launches, six blew up. Apollo One killed three astronauts. In the final Gemini mission, the docking computer failed. Buzz Aldrin, a PhD in astronautical engineering, docked it manually. Crewmate Jim Lovell, would later save Apollo 13.
Persistence comes in many forms, but perhaps Apollo 11 illustrates best how that works. Having worked with Buzz for 25 years, he has quietly retold tense moments. One always floors me. Here it is.
On July 20, 1969, he and Neil landed on the moon, walked, returned to the lunar module, but in the process snapped off the circuit breaker that controlled power to the ascent engine. The world did not know it, but they now faced a potential eternity on the moon.
Mission control told the two to sleep, while they studied the problem. No answer. The breaker – now a hole in the panel – was on Buzz’s side. He considered using a pen to push it in, but that was metal, conducted electricity, might short the circuit. His finger might do the same, so that was out.
Finally, he found a felt-tipped pen, not even on the manifest list. Why was it there? “I liked the fat marks it made on the checklist, so brought it.” When the world listened to countdown for launch of the ascent engine, Buzz noting they were “first on the runway,” what next occurred was Buzz inserted the pen.
All kinds of bad things, especially nothing, might have happened. Instead, resourcefulness, belief, a certain kind of American genius, and persistence paid off. The engine lit. Three days later, they splashed down, home, Kennedy, America, and freedom vindicated. Now, 54 years later, you know the rest of the story. Americans are remarkable.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.