Neil Armstrong's death reminds us that there is no such thing as faith-based progress.
The lodge at Camp Skoglund was an A-frame, painted barn red with white trim. It was the center of activity at the boys’ camp, and on the night of July 20, 1969, it was unusually quiet. On most nights, the counselors would play music. Cream was popular that summer, and Iron Butterfly. Many of us would tap into our snack accounts to buy orange sodas and chips and play games or just goof around. But on this night, everyone sat on the floor, gathered in a semi-circle as one of the counselors fiddled with the rabbit-ear antenna on top of an old black-and-white television set as we squinted to discern Walter Cronkite’s familiar face amid the static.
We were in the middle of Maine, on the banks of Echo Lake, about 15 minutes from the state capital, Augusta. And we had gathered to watch a man set foot on the moon for the very first time. For years I had followed with geekish gusto every twist and turn of the space program, every new class of astronauts, setbacks like the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, and every glorious achievement — from space walks to docking to the Apollo 8 flight that had circled the moon for the first time. In my bunk, up the dirt path from the lodge, I had brought with me a box of newspaper clippings, NASA handouts, and astronaut photos. It made little sense to pack them in my duffle with my bug spray and baseball mitt and other summer camp gear, but I knew that the landing would be special, the greatest event of my lifetime, of all of human history as far as I was concerned at age 13. I wanted to be prepared.
As the moment approached, a little past 10 p.m. that night, the counselor in charge of television reception concluded he would just have to stand and hold the antenna throughout the broadcast. Even then, the images we got from the surface of the moon were murky. But they were from the surface of the moon! And in a way, we could make out the shadowy image of Neil Armstrong as he bounced down the ladder on the lunar module and paused for a moment before settling his boot into the grey dust of the lunar surface. His line about "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" echoed for a moment, a quarter million miles from where it was uttered, up against the white rafters of the lodge.
And then most of the room turned away, back to their games. Ever over-serious, I wrote down his words as if others might not do so. And soon, I was the only one still sitting in front of the television watching, a fact that did not enhance my image at a camp where open wounds and nights spent tied to a gravestone at the local cemetery were the way to win respect.
Walking on the moon was a promise fulfilled. To my adolescent self, it was just the latest in the seemingly endless stream of developments that confirmed that we were living in the greatest country on Earth at the greatest moment in history. Mars could not be far behind. And flying cars, of course. And jetpacks.
Reading the obituaries of Neil Armstrong this weekend, I was struck that such faith in boundless breakthroughs was not just a fanboy’s fantasy. Armstrong himself said he had believed we would continue to build on the remarkable achievements of the Apollo program. "There are," he said, "places to go beyond belief."
But it didn’t happen. The manned space program is on hiatus without apparent end. We send robots to Mars and into deep space, but popular support for space exploration has faded away. Armstrong, a quiet engineer and former naval aviator who remarkably maintained his privacy despite having been one of the most famous men in the world, lamented this too, lending his voice to calls for better funding for NASA. But for all he did, for all the energy the space program provided to America and the U.S. economy, his entreaties fell on deaf ears.
Thinking of Armstrong in the days after his death, of what he achieved and what it symbolized, throws the pallid, visionless national conversation of our day into stark relief. The soaring optimism and grand vision John F. Kennedy sketched out when he set the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade seems farther away from today’s name-calling and hollow battles over motives than the outer reaches of our solar system. The debate, and our so-called leaders, have become earthbound in every respect.
It is possible to understand this in the context of America’s financial morass, but that is only part of the story and an insufficient excuse for the failure to conjure or cultivate great dreams. More damning than the failure to limn grand ideas — because that happens from time to time — is our unwillingness to commit to them with what it takes to bring them to fruition. This is especially true when it comes to those notions that require the forces and resources that made the space program great: a transcendent belief in science and engineering and the power of rigorously applied human knowledge.
The space program was the crowning achievement of centuries of scientific enlightenment that began roughly with Newton in the 17th century. It was a celebration of what scientific knowledge could make possible. Of math. Of computing. Of aeronautical engineering. Of countless branches of the sciences that today are regularly not only ignored by our so-called leaders but frequently denigrated by them, dismissed, or rendered secondary to childish superstition, cant, and prejudice.
How hard must it have been for a man like Armstrong to listen and watch as the country lurched from hailing scientific achievement as the ultimate affirmation of the American spirit to denying evolution, climate science, and the importance of exploring the universe in which we live. How difficult must it have been for a generation of slide rule-wielding heroes to listen as we made excuses for our children so that their failures at science and math were papered over rather than addressed, as we slipped behind other countries not just with our space program but even when it came to delivering the basic educational building blocks that are the prerequisites for training new generations of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and astronauts.
But we haven’t just lost touch with the spirit embodied by Kennedy and Armstrong and the late Sally Ride. We live in an era in which we have let religious fundamentalism and extremism gain such a powerful role in our political discourse that mainstream politicians in both parties regularly kowtow to the foolishness of preachers and know-nothings who see knowledge as a threat to their fragile philosophies. It’s not a new phenomenon. Galileo saw it too. But you would have thought, now into the second decade of the 21st century, we would be past all that.
Listen to the airwaves, and you will hear ads accusing President Obama of waging a war against religion. But do you hear similar outrage over the war that religious and political extremists in the United States are waging against science, against math, and even against history — against all facts that don’t jibe with right-wing political ideology? Those wars are not just against the spirit of Armstrong and the space program but against the spirit of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and the IT Revolution and progress itself. But few candidates dare speak out. When GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman tweeted, "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," this prosaic sentiment was treated as a transcendent, even daring thing to say. (And it was followed shortly after by his crushing defeat in the primaries.)
Don’t expect any Huntsman moments during the GOP convention this week, even as climate change stirs up hurricanes and droughts and we receive new reports that Arctic ice has shrunk to record lows, even as we have Senate candidates spewing offensive, nonsensical notions about how the female body works. Candidates will embrace religion as seldom before. (For examples, see the Tanenbaum* Center for Interreligious Understanding’s tracking of religious statements by all our candidates this election year for an accounting of the creeping expansion of religion into our national discourse.) But listen for a defense of the science and math that have been hallmarks of American greatness since Franklin and Jefferson and you will hear the sound of the nonexistent wind that blew around that motionless flag Neil Armstrong planted on the lunar surface back in 1969.
After the historic broadcast wrapped up that July night, I went out and sat at the end of the dock. I looked at the moon reflected on the water and high above me and imagined Armstrong and Aldrin there, sitting in the Eagle that had landed at Tranquility Base. It was thrilling not just because of what we had achieved but because of where we might go: All those places Armstrong imagined that were "beyond belief." Little did I realize that a few decades later the space program and America would be struggling once again even to dream of new horizons.
We’ve been grounded by our fiscal fecklessness, to be sure. But we have also allowed ourselves to be drawn into a "values" debate rather than one about what is really valuable to us as a nation. What we feel in our hearts is important, but we cannot afford to leave our heads out of the equation. The lesson of Armstrong and his peers is that there is no such thing as faith-based progress. For that reason, a precondition for any future success America might enjoy is to fight back hard against those who deny science: By subordinating its truths, we subordinate ourselves.
*Correction, Aug. 28, 2012: The original version of this article misspelled the name of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. (Return to the corrected text.)
Minor typos and punctuation errors have also been corrected.