The Moon


Fifty years ago tomorrow, a guy from Ohio stepped onto the Moon, and suddenly Earthlings became extra-terrestrials.  It was a spectacular accomplishment.  Everybody on this planet — from Brooklyn to Borneo — knew about it, and US president Richard Nixon got so carried away he called it, “the most significant event since creation” (fire and the wheel notwithstanding.)  But our species going to the moon was more than just going to the moon.  It was a blatant demonstration that humans can defy the natural laws of the universe (notably, gravity) and do whatever the hell we want.  We had the confidence, the ability and the audacity to hurl ourselves off this little blue marble, visit another celestial body and come back to tell the tale.  In your face, Mother Nature!

Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man …” was the culmination of The Big Idea, an inherent human trait that has dominated our existence since long before Pharaoh Cheops decided he wanted to be immortal and asked his scientists, mathematicians and engineers to make it so.  Our reach has always exceeded our grasp — until we grasp.  Then we begin the whole process over again.  For example, the wheel is a magnificent tool, but inventing the cam which converts circular motion into vertical power was a singular act of genius.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but invention itself is its own philandering father, propagating numerous offspring to find a new necessity and begin the process all over again.  Human history is a litany of necessity and invention — each progressively more complex and imaginative than the last.

The Lunar landing itself didn’t do much to change the lives of anybody, really.  (The slingshot of Space Race technology wouldn’t hit our society for a generation.)  The next day, most people simply went about their ordinary earthly business.  But we were all a little bolder, a little more self-assured, a little more hopeful.  After all, we’d just put a man on the moon: how hard could the rest of our problems be?  But that’s the nature of the Big Idea.  Its very soul is the notion that, when we concentrate our ideas and abilities, we can make the impossible ordinary.  That, once inspired, humans are capable of thinking beyond themselves.  And that inspiration is, by nature, selfless, righteous, and beneficial.  The Big Idea assumes the greater good.

Neil Armstrong didn’t just decide to go to the moon.  He got there because, in the early 60s, there was a Big Idea, and in 1962, President Kennedy went to Rice University and asked Americans to reach for the stars.

“We choose to go to the moon,” he said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade …, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone …”

Seven years later, at Moon Base One, somewhere in the Sea of Tranquility, an army of NASA scientists, mathematicians and engineers made it so.

These days, it’s fashionable to embellish our human flaws and limitations, to scroll through our problems, upload our complaints and download our responsibilities.  We are the grandchildren of the Lunar Generation, connected by our machines, concerned and conceited with ourselves and comfortable with our own righteousness.  But history shows us that one day – someday – there will be a new Big Idea and the human adventure will begin again.

John Glenn And The Big Idea (2016)

john-glennJohn Glenn died yesterday.  For my generation, he was one of the good guys.  He exemplified a lot of what we’ve forgotten about the 60s.  I wrote this in 2012 on the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s space flight.  It is still relevant today.  (I’ve edited it for brevity.)


Fifty years ago today, we took a guy from Ohio, sat him on top of 100,000 kilos of high octane fuel, lit the match and shot him straight out of our oxygen-rich atmosphere into the void of space.  And the only reason we did it is because we could.  We had the technology to throw man and machine off our planet entirely — so we did.  John Glenn didn’t have to put his polyester suit and plastic helmet on that morning and climb into Friendship 7.  He wasn’t an essential component of the mission.  In fact, he was actually considered extra weight by Von Braun’s aeronautical engineers.  He was, as Chuck Yeager called him, “spam in a can.”  Nor was he the ground-breaking first person in space: Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin beat him there by ten months.  He wasn’t even the first American: Alan Shepard and “Gus” Grissom got there first.  However, John Glenn is the one we remember because he was part of the Big Idea.

The Big Idea is that magical phenom that galvanizes a people and motivates them to reach for the stars – in this case, literally.  It grabs our imagination and brings our best qualities forward to achieve what might even seem to be impossible.  It’s a vision of a better future.  It ignites the human spirit.  It can be as simple as The March of Dimes to end polio or as large as the Interstate Highway system.  But the one common denominator of the Big Idea is people believe.

Six months after John Glenn orbited the earth and returned home safely, President John Kennedy stepped up to the podium at Rice University in Houston, Texas and told America what the Big Idea was.  He said:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet.  Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain?  Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?  Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

Kennedy could have held a Washington, DC press conference and mambled on about committing billions of dollars to rocketry, computer technology, material fabrication and the exploration of space, but he didn`t.  He went to a university where his future technicians would come from and said, “Hey! What are you doin’ after graduation?  Wanna go to the moon?”  He told those bright-eyed kids that they could be the first generation to defy the laws of gravity set down by Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century.  He told them they could slip the surly bonds of earth and follow Copernicus and Galileo into history.  He turned their faces to the shiny thing in the sky that has fascinated humans since the beginning of time and told them they can go there.  And he told them their studies, their work, their very lives had a purpose, a meaning, a fulfillment.  He gave them the Big Idea that they could do something larger than themselves.  They could make a contribution, however small, to the continuity of civilization. He gave them a tangible target and said go get it.

And the Big Idea caught fire.  For seven years those kids and others worked long hours, suffered setbacks, had triumphs, dug in hard and gave their creativity and time to every problem and their enthusiasm and energy to every solution.  They built one of the most complex systems in history, and in July, 1969, they took another guy from Ohio and put him on the Moon.  And they walked away proud of their accomplishment in a world that was better off because of what they’d done.

Fifty years ago today, John Glenn made a giant leap into space.  He did it because somebody had to.  He was one small step on the stairway to the stars, a single part of the Big Idea that said “We can do this.”

Half a century later, even though we can live in space now and send our machines to Mars and the outer reaches of our solar system, we still have staircases in our world.  They lead to hungry places, places without light, places where people suffer needlessly in a world of plenty.  Sometimes, it looks as though these are insurmountable problems that will plague humanity for all time.  They aren’t.  There are still Big Ideas in the world; we’ve just forgotten where to look for them.