Columnist Charles Krauthammer calls the ceremonial interment of the space shuttle Discovery an act of "willed American decline." He's certainly right about that. It is an historic retreat for America.
It was under John F. Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, that America was summoned to greatness. Frustrated by a series of Soviet "firsts" in space -- first earth satellite (Sputnik), first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) -- the young President Kennedy knew that his talk of "getting America moving again" would ring hollow if the Soviets bested us in space.
For the USSR, space was vitally important. Nikita Khrushchev was the Communist Party boss who had famously denounced his dead predecessor, Josef Stalin. Under Khrushchev, Stalin's embalmed remains were hauled out of Lenin's tomb, cremated, and buried in an obscure Kremlin grave. But how to legitimize his own dictatorship? How to show the world that communism was the wave of the future? Space. For Nikita Sergeivich Khruschev, Marxism-Leninism would be validated by conquering space. Russian, not English, would be the first language spoken in the cosmos. Cosmonauts, not astronauts, would lead progressive mankind.
Khrushchev chose Yuri Gagarin to be the first man to orbit the earth because he was a clean-cut, fit, and outspokenly atheist young Soviet pilot. When Gagarin came safely to earth, he told a press conference he had seen "nyet boga" up there. No God. One Soviet historian, Zheyva Sveltilova, told credulous Westerners that when the hammer and sickle conquers space, "people who now believe in God will reject him. Such belief won't be logical or natural. Man will be stronger than God."
It is noteworthy that the brave Apollo 8 astronauts -- Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders -- the first human beings to leave Earth's orbit and travel to the moon -- did not reject God. In fact, they read from the Book of Genesis as their spacecraft orbited the moon. On Christmas Eve 1968, no less. And Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, celebrated Christian communion in the lunar lander as Neil Armstrong of Apollo XI took his famous "giant leap for mankind."
President Kennedy resolved to find that one goal that could inspire Americans and capture the imagination of mankind -- and which he knew the United States could best its communist adversary: the moon. At a time when leading Republicans -- Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr. -- carped that the effort to reach the moon would be too costly, Kennedy's vision prevailed. He knew that being number one in space would pay dividends on Earth. Surely, it has. The entire computer revolution we are living through was spurred by America's moon landing.
In his jaunty way, JFK said, "America has thrown her hat over the wall of space and we have no choice but to follow." President Kennedy was right. The American Apollo program was one of the greatest events in all of human history. By turning our backs on JFK's achievement, we have consented to national humiliation and national decline.
An American astronaut was asked recently what advice she had for a young child interested in space. "Learn Russian," she said. Inspired by John F. Kennedy, America went to the moon. On his grave at Arlington the night of July 20, 1969, someone put a simple note: "The Eagle has landed." In the Age of Obama, the Eagle has fallen.