Neil Armstrong died unexpectedly on Saturday, 51 years and one month after becoming the first person to walk on the moon. With over half the world’s population not yet 30, the moon landing is ancient history. And it does seem a different era. The Apollo Program, which fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, was the culmination of an intense space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with the backdrop of the Cold War and fears of a science gap, which would lead to nuclear weapons inferiority, a destabilized world and a withering war.
So it is not surprising that Armstrong planted an American flag on the lunar soil. But unlike conquistadors of old, Armstrong did not claim the moon as American territory. In fact, not far from the flag, he and Buzz Aldren laid a plaque that read simply: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
With private companies gearing up for the commercial opportunities of space travel, with others thinking about exploiting the resources out there and colonizing new planets for when we have destroyed this one, with space itself increasingly littered with human debris and weapons of war, the words of that plaque are worth remembering.
With the exception of those doubters who insist he was actually in Arizona, Armstrong’s “small step” electrified the nation. Conceived by a president and built with public funds, it’s a reminder of what we can accomplish when we dream together.