FLORIDA, August 26, 2012 — For untold millions of Americans, Neil Armstrong personified an elusive, yet seemingly attainable dream: the exploration of outer space.
When he set foot on the moon in 1969, the first man in history to do so, it appeared that our nation was on the brink of a new frontier. The United States had indisputably won the space race, and nothing was standing in its way of becoming an extraterrestrial, let alone world, power.
Indeed, if the average person were asked whether or not this country would have a space colony — and perhaps even a profitable space tourism industry — by the year 2012, the answer almost definitely would have been yes.
If only this were in the cards.
Armstrong’s death is a tremendous loss for our nation. Not only was he a remarkably accomplished astronaut, but a symbol for human innovation and that fabled brand of All-American optimism.
At the time of the moon landing, the United States was, as it is now, caught in an era of social and political strife. Despite this sobering state of affairs, the country was unified for a brief, triumphant moment when Armstrong took his “one small step.”
Could the nation unite that way today? Could a huge technological challenge and the spirit of adventure combine to capture the national imagination as Apollo did? Apparently not. We eliminated the shuttle fleet with barely any notice, and the elimination of funding for a Mars mission from NASA’s budget was met with a collective yawn. Manned space epxloration has lost its grip on the national imagination, replaced with … nothing.
Immensely sad as this is, it is well in tune with modern society’s tendency to champion mediocrity.
Since we live in an age of picking up rocks from the ground rather than reaching for the stars, what else can honestly be expected?
In the 1960s, riven as it was by strife, America was a nation on the move. It boasted luminous public intellectuals such as William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, leaders who dreamed big, like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and by far most importantly, a citizenry which could also dream big and had confidence in the future.
Today, America is a country on the move, to be sure. The problem is that it is rolling downhill, and at an alarming speed. Its pundits are people like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, its politicians are people like Jim DeMint and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Worst of all, the American people are too tired or radicalized to care about the bigger picture. Like our pundits and politicians, we argue over the tactics of our decline rather than strategize for a grander future.
The Greatest Generation, of which Neil Armstrong was such a glorious exemplar, remains a societal phenomenon without parallel. Succeeding generations have been unworthy heirs of the former’s accomplishments, the generations who preferred to devour what was left to them and treat it as spoils, rather than treat it as the legacy it was and build on it.
I’m sure none too few of our contemporaries would love to invent an award for that.
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