July 16 will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. In many ways, this particular anniversary is different because it might represent the greatest accomplishment in the history of humanity. It represents the culmination of every other technological advancement of our species — fire, wheels, electricity, clothing, and so on — and the accomplishment we will celebrate is not military or nationalistic. Instead, it shows the capacity of accomplishment when people stop acting in their own self-interest and work together in pursuit of a greater purpose.
Launched on its journey atop a Saturn V rocket (essentially a small nuclear bomb) on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was the mission to land the first human on the surface of the moon. The Apollo crew of Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins represented the American section of the human species from Earth, but they really represented the whole planet, something more than just one country. Four days later on June 20 at 4:17 p.m., the lunar module, the “Eagle,” landed in the moon’s “Sea of Tranquility.”
At 10:39 p.m., the hatch opened and Armstrong became the first earthling to open the door to the desolate lack-of atmosphere of the moon. At 10:56 p.m., Armstrong imprinted his boot print onto the surface of the moon and uttered those now immortalized words: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Aldrin would then join Armstrong on the surface, but a couple of hours later they were back in the lunar module to camp overnight. They left several items behind, among them were the iconic American flag and a plaque on the landing gear of the module. The plague read:
Here men from the planet Earth
first set foot upon the Moon,
July 1969 A.D.
We came in peace for all mankind
The language on the plaque reflects the mission statement of NASA as approved by Congress that “it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.” The beauty of that statement is that while landing a man on the moon and returning him safely back to earth is the most amazing achievement thusfar in human history, it is a peaceful act on behalf of all people, not just one country. The achievement is the culmination of a peaceful purpose to represent the whole world.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that some folks think that the United States exists only for the United States. That was clearly not the view of the founders of the country, those who have preserved it over the years, or our wartime governments. Ronald Reagan borrowed language from John Winthrop that America is to be “a city upon on a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” John F. Kennedy certainly believed that putting a man on the moon was important for our country, but he clearly also believed it was important for all of humanity, as well. NASA was founded on the belief that a truly great accomplishment was an instrument of peace among all of humanity. The United States was founded on the notion that by our virtuous practices, all of humankind might become better.
Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin carried with them no weapons, only the best technology and the hopes and dreams of everyone on our planet. Everyone on earth is affected by the power of the moon — it’s gravity, presence and beauty. When we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, it might do us good to pause and remember the purpose of that mission instead of reducing it to a chance to trot out the sentimental clichés, garish clothes and cheap patriotism. Maybe it has something to teach us about how to think about immigration, foreign policy, domestic policy, and even our hopes and dreams as a nation. In fact, it might do us some good to ponder whether we are city on a hill that is worth imitating. It seems to me that true patriotism upon the anniversary of Apollo 11 might be to recognize that the greater purpose of America is to demonstrate the power of the best ideals of humanity.
News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.