08/28/2012 01:08 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

We Believed We Could Touch the Sky

When Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, we were not living in kinder, gentler times. In a nation still reeling from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. the previous year, 1969 was the beginning of the Nixon presidency, the summer of Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, the Manson murders and the trial of the Chicago Eight.

Armstrong's death at age 82 last week has evoked numerous gauzy tributes to his amazing courage and adventuresome spirit. But romantic memories of that historic moment belie the real triumph not only for Armstrong and NASA, but for our deeply conflicted nation of the late 1960's. For a riveting moment in time, we believed we could "touch the sky." (Thanks to R. Kelly for that lyric.) Armstrong's real achievement made Americans come together, ever so briefly, surmounting the turgid, fearful climate of war, assassinations, riots and the extraordinary social fractures of the 1960's.

In the current political era, when all talk of government seems to divide us, we should remember that Apollo 11's moon landing and Armstrong's walk was the fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy's vision to land a man on the moon by the end of that turbulent decade. In a special address to Congress on "Urgent National Needs" on May 25, 1961, Kennedy was very direct: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

Kennedy articulated the clear premise that the United States had to beat the Soviet Union to the moon as a principle of liberty, freedom and national security, as well as a means to leverage scientific achievement. But Kennedy was also a dreamer, and breaking through earth's atmosphere to walk on the surface of another celestial body captured the imagination like nothing since Columbus gazed across waves to the unknown Atlantic horizon.

Such wild imagination had important practical implications. The space race was, of course, certainly more than a confection, a great fantasy to distract the nation from the horrors of Vietnam's jungles and political leaders shot dead on our own streets and cities burning in the conflagration of rage that was so much of the 1960's. The space race was a deadly serious dimension of our national defense in an age when we thought our greatest threat was from another nation state, all red buttons and red phones and bomb shelters and air raid drills.

But for most of us who were schoolchildren in the great era of space exploration, Star Wars was a movie not a defense strategy. We loved the fantasy part of the space race, the brave astronauts bouncing around in the lunar dust, the sight of the American flag firmly planted in that strange terrain. We framed the iconic photo of our great blue earth rising above the horizon of the moon. We were all one people for a brief moment -- we were the world! We believed we could touch the sky.

When did we stop believing? We fell hard to earth in the 1970's and beyond -- we lost in Vietnam, a presidency fell in ruins, American diplomats became hostages, the Challenger blew up and the twin towers came crashing down in an act of war that revealed our most fearsome enemy was not another nation but a lawless band of thugs hiding in remote caves. What good was the moon in the hunt for Al Quaeda? The space race was over; manned space flight was sent to the attic like toys from our youth.

In this age of virulent anti-government sentiment, we should remember that American scientific excellence, extraordinary individual talent and heroism, and the robust support of the U.S. Government in NASA and the related agencies all pulled together to make the moon landing possible in eight short years, from the time President Kennedy articulated his vision on May 25, 1961, to the time Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar rover on July 20, 1969. Imagine getting a project of that scope and complexity done in such a short period of time today! Heck, we can't even get Congress to agree on short-term budget proposals.

Where is the leadership to fire the imagination of new generations, a leadership powerful enough to transcend the petty snipes and woefully short-sighted special interests of this tawdry political age to call the collective American will into action for a future we should work harder to imagine?

The American psyche needs a new space race, a challenge of the imagination, a challenge unbound by the partisan politics and small-minded concerns that fill too much of our collective space today. Our greatest deficit right now is not about money, but rather, a deficit of vision, of imagination, of the will to be greater than we were in the past. Who among our current crop of political leaders would be so bold as to say, as President Kennedy said half a century ago, in asking Congress to authorize the extraordinary sums of money necessary to fund the space program with a goal of reaching the moon by the end of the decade:

"It is not a pleasure for any President of the United States, as I am sure it was not a pleasure for my predecessors, to come before the Congress and ask for new appropriations which place burdens on our people. I came to this conclusion with some reluctance. But in my judgment, this is a most serious time in the life of our country and in the life of freedom around the globe... Our greatest asset in this struggle is the American people--their willingness to pay the price for these programs--to understand and accept a long struggle--to share their resources with other less fortunate people--to meet the tax levels and close the tax loopholes I have requested--to exercise self-restraint instead of pushing up wages or prices, or over-producing certain crops, or spreading military secrets, or urging unessential expenditures or improper monopolies or harmful work stoppages--to serve in the Peace Corps or the Armed Services or the Federal Civil Service or the Congress--to strive for excellence in their schools, in their cities and in their physical fitness and that of their children--to take part in Civil Defense--to pay higher postal rates, and higher payroll taxes and higher teachers' salaries, in order to strengthen our society--to show friendship to students and visitors from other lands who visit us and go back in many cases to be the future leaders, with an image of America--and I want that image, and I know you do, to be affirmative and positive--and, finally, to practice democracy at home, in all States, with all races, to respect each other and to protect the Constitutional rights of all citizens.

"I have not asked for a single program which did not cause one or all Americans some inconvenience, or some hardship, or some sacrifice. But they have responded and you in the Congress have responded to your duty--and I feel confident in asking today for a similar response to these new and larger demands. It is heartening to know, as I journey abroad, that our country is united in its commitment to freedom and is ready to do its duty."

(John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961, Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs)

President Kennedy did not live to see Neil Armstrong's fulfillment of this bold, revolutionary vision for America. But the force of his eloquent leadership and forceful statement of expectations for all Americans, combined with the amazing talent and courage of astronauts like Armstrong and the NASA team behind them, carried the Apollo program forward.

Even today, the sight of the Curiosity Rover on Mars carries echoes of the last great American voice for the courage to keep exploring beyond the familiar bounds of earth.

Who among our political leaders has the courage to look at Curiosity and say, "Let's have an American driving that thing across the Mars landscape by 2025!"

A fantasy? Perhaps. But without President Kennedy's fantasy, we would never have heard of Neil Armstrong.