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.