Here’s one way Apollo 11 changed America: It gave politicians, policy advocates, and ordinary people a new way to talk about the astonishing potential of the federal government to change the world.
After the day 50 years ago when the first man walked on the moon, turning science fiction into reality, the term “moonshot” entered the nation’s vocabulary, and it’s lodged there ever since.
Just in recent years, Americans have called for a cancer moonshot; a climate moonshot; a transportation moonshot; an artificial-intelligence moonshot.
It’s a shorthand for a massive federal government effort focused on a single daring, seemingly impossible objective. If the United States can aim for the moon — and get there — then what next?
Or, as this page put it the day after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Sea of Tranquility: “If man could do all this, why could he not also solve the much easier and less complex problem of ending poverty and misery on planet Earth?”
A little of that spirit is worth reviving today, as the nation celebrates the anniversary. For all its flaws, this country still does have the capacity to launch moonshots — whether it’s to cure cancer, avert climate change, or end poverty and homelessness. They may lack the made-for-TV quality of the moon landing, but summon the same ambition.
Still, comparing the America of 2019 with the America of 1969, something has undeniably changed: the erosion of the trust in government that was an underappreciated key to Apollo 11’s success.
Yes, putting a man on the moon took money — about $288 billion in 2019 dollars — but it also took multiple acts of faith. Americans trusted their government to spend billions of dollars on a project that ran a great risk of failure. They continued to trust through setbacks that could have doomed the project, like the death of the three crew members aboard Apollo 1 . And the Apollo 11 astronauts themselves — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — entrusted their lives to the scientists and engineers who put them on the moon, just eight years after President John F. Kennedy set that as a national goal.
The decline in trust for the government over the last five decades — some of it well deserved, but much of it stoked by politicians — takes a toll not just on our civic health, but also the capacity to aim for the stars.
Just to be clear, trusting the government is different than trusting individual politicians. It just means confidence that government itself is not inherently a problem — and that it can often be the solution.
“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy said in 1962 — “this decade.” Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins completed the mission on time, with months to spare. What NASA accomplished in such a short time is as wondrous and inspiring now as it was then.
The government still has unsurpassed technical ability. It can still “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” as Kennedy put it. What’s needed is a renewed willingness to choose to do just that — to entrust it with the moonshots America needs now.