Sixty years ago, President John F. Kennedy, inspired by the historic first space flights of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, Jr., addressed a joint session of Congress and challenged his countrymen to “achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. It was a momentous proposal, made before it was truly known to be possible, with many of the materials needed yet to be invented, the computer science yet to be discovered. Historians put Kennedy’s vision down to the infamous Cold War rivalry with the then-Soviet Union for world hegemony. Space achievement, it was thought, was a key indicator of the superiority of democracy over communism. Yet, putting political motives aside, it’s also true that Kennedy’s plea earned him a blank check from Congress for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, because it was a big dream.
Today, we are emerging from a four-year nightmare, which saw hatred and cruelty become societal norms, which has left out country at its most divided since the 1860s, and in which a devastating pandemic has killed unspeakable numbers of our families and friends. Our economy is in tatters, and the last Presidential administration ended in a shocking, deadly attempt to overthrow our democratic process, instigated by the President himself. In every sense of the word, we’ve lived through a waking nightmare of horrific proportions.
Yet, here we are now, awakening to the rosy dawn of a new, enlightened administration determined to restore our country to its former place in the world; a place of leadership, openness, and the will to dream. In all our long, convoluted history, we Americans have weathered some wrenching trials, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. JFK grappled with the nascent Vietnam War, the atrocities of the Jim Crow South, and the stark terror that was the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the world almost ended. Kennedy governed in an era of turbulence that would come to define the Sixties, and for his gallant service he paid with his life. To be sure, Kennedy wasn’t perfect, for, to quote Herman Wouk, “no great man fails to make mistakes”. Through it all, however, JFK never lost the ability to dream.
At this time of renewal in America, it is meet and proper that we first finish the business of the nightmare: we must get the pandemic under control, return the economy to a state of good repair, and begin the process of doing the justice that will start the healing process our body politic so direly needs. Yet, even within the dictates of these imperatives, there is time to dream. I suggest it is even essential that we dream, while we navigate our way back to normalcy. In the Sixties, we held on to the dream of sailing among the stars, because we knew what it meant for humanity. A deeper understanding of science and nature, wrapped in the amazement of what our minds could accomplish when put to positive purposes; we knew innately that these were things worth investing our energy and dollars in. It wasn’t easy: the scientists, engineers, administrators and astronauts at NASA carried out their work against a backdrop of political assassinations, riots, cultural upheaval, and war. Still, they persevered.
Their reward was far more than they ever expected. The whole world stopped what it was doing, put aside their differences, and watched in stunned awe as human beings set foot on another heavenly body and rediscovered the majesty and fragility of our own small planet. The bounty of realizing Kennedy’s lofty dream pays us dividends to this day: the foundations of modern technology came out of the Apollo program. So, dream we must, and dream we should. We can dream of conquering climate change, overcoming our prejudices and bigotries (look at how President Biden is already assembling a historically diverse Cabinet!), and once again, reach for the stars. Mars is up there, waiting for us to walk among its sandy dunes, and we have our own implicit challenge to do these, and other great things even as we emerge from the adversity that has consumed our daily lives in recent years. We should do it. Let the dream begin anew!