That was the average age of the 400,000 people in the Apollo program who came together in the greatest geek orchestra ever to put a man on the moon 50 years ago.
The reason they succeeded in less than a decade might just be that they didn’t know any better. They were too young to realize it was impossible. Which it was, but they did it anyway. They showed that sometimes faith and zeal are better fuel than experience and knowledge.
For the last 50 years, in fact, going to the moon has become shorthand for the idea that anything is possible.
If we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to (fill in the blank).
Ronald Reagan used the phrase in 1968, before we even got there: “We can send a man to the moon, but we cannot guarantee his safety in walking across the street.”
On Jan. 1, 2018, the Wall Street Journal used it in a headline to ask why we haven’t been back in 50 years: “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Man on the Moon?”
When we’re frustrated by roadblocks, bureaucracy, intransigence or just sheer lack of imagination, it’s one of the first phrases we reach for.
At the moment, the inspiration of that far-off accomplishment is something we sorely need. We all seem to be looking down at our phones, trapped in our ideological silos and grievances, unable to lift our heads and shoot for the stars. Instead, it feels like we Americans at the moment are slouching toward dysfunction. We can’t even seem to keep our government open for very long.
When we set high expectations for ourselves — really high, really hard expectations — we have always risen to the occasion, found our better angels up there, and become a better nation.
Looking back at some of the coverage of the lead-up to the moon landing in the decade before, the thing that struck me most was the confidence that, once we decided to do it, there was no doubt we would.
That’s how we were back in the late 1960s, even in the midst of the turmoil of Vietnam and the strife of the civil rights movement.
We knew we could do it. This was America after all. We invented the First Amendment and the Big Mac. We forever enshrined in our founding documents the idea that all men are created equal. We put together the 1927 New York Yankees. We created the telephone and the Model T. We won World War II. We wrote “Rhapsody in Blue.” And made the movie “Rear Window.” We built the interstate highways and the Panama Canal. We invented the airplane and rock ‘n’ roll.
And honestly, it hasn’t stopped since the moon landing, even though that sometimes seems like the American high point. We kicked Communists out of Eastern Europe after that and invented the internet. And the iPhone. And Shark Week. And Amazon.
We are a call and response country. Give us leaders who call us to greatness, and we go great. We are a country built on the expectation that we can do this — run a country — ourselves. As a result, we need to constantly remind ourselves of our sky-high expectations.
The moonshot anniversary reminds me that we have faced bigger challenges than today’s political dysfunction. And won. We are not threatened by tyranny from Europe; we are not enslaved, or enslaving others. We are not in a civil war. We are not an Earthbound people. We have been to other worlds.
It’s time that science, government and technology joined forces once again to solve the world’s great challenges, just the way we solved the moon. Let’s treat global warming, for example, not as a ideological battleground but as a Manhattan Project and put our best energy minds to it, invent our way into the future again.
Better yet, let’s ask a bunch of 27-year-olds to figure it out.
If they can put a man on the moon…. .