The lodge at Camp Skoglund was an A-frame, painted barn red with white trim. It was the center of activity at the boys' camp, and on the night of July 20, 1969, it was unusually quiet. On most nights, the counselors would play music. Cream was popular that summer, and Iron Butterfly. Many of us would tap into our snack accounts to buy orange sodas and chips and play games or just goof around. But on this night, everyone sat on the floor, gathered in a semi-circle as one of the counselors fiddled with the rabbit-ear antenna on top of an old black-and-white television set as we squinted to discern Walter Cronkite's familiar face amid the static.
We were in the middle of Maine, on the banks of Echo Lake, about 15 minutes from the state capital, Augusta. And we had gathered to watch a man set foot on the moon for the very first time. For years I had followed with geekish gusto every twist and turn of the space program, every new class of astronauts, setbacks like the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, and every glorious achievement -- from space walks to docking to the Apollo 8 flight that had circled the moon for the first time. In my bunk, up the dirt path from the lodge, I had brought with me a box of newspaper clippings, NASA handouts, and astronaut photos. It made little sense to pack them in my duffle with my bug spray and baseball mitt and other summer camp gear, but I knew that the landing would be special, the greatest event of my lifetime, of all of human history as far as I was concerned at age 13. I wanted to be prepared.
As the moment approached, a little past 10 p.m. that night, the counselor in charge of television reception concluded he would just have to stand and hold the antenna throughout the broadcast. Even then, the images we got from the surface of the moon were murky. But they were from the surface of the moon! And in a way, we could make out the shadowy image of Neil Armstrong as he bounced down the ladder on the lunar module and paused for a moment before settling his boot into the grey dust of the lunar surface. His line about "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" echoed for a moment, a quarter million miles from where it was uttered, up against the white rafters of the lodge.
And then most of the room turned away, back to their games. Ever over-serious, I wrote down his words as if others might not do so. And soon, I was the only one still sitting in front of the television watching, a fact that did not enhance my image at a camp where open wounds and nights spent tied to a gravestone at the local cemetery were the way to win respect.
Walking on the moon was a promise fulfilled. To my adolescent self, it was just the latest in the seemingly endless stream of developments that confirmed that we were living in the greatest country on Earth at the greatest moment in history. Mars could not be far behind. And flying cars, of course. And jetpacks.
Reading the obituaries of Neil Armstrong this weekend, I was struck that such faith in boundless breakthroughs was not just a fanboy's fantasy. Armstrong himself said he had believed we would continue to build on the remarkable achievements of the Apollo program. "There are," he said, "places to go beyond belief."
But it didn't happen. The manned space program is on hiatus without apparent end. We send robots to Mars and into deep space, but popular support for space exploration has faded away. Armstrong, a quiet engineer and former naval aviator who remarkably maintained his privacy despite having been one of the most famous men in the world, lamented this too, lending his voice to calls for better funding for NASA. But for all he did, for all the energy the space program provided to America and the U.S. economy, his entreaties fell on deaf ears.
Thinking of Armstrong in the days after his death, of what he achieved and what it symbolized, throws the pallid, visionless national conversation of our day into stark relief. The soaring optimism and grand vision John F. Kennedy sketched out when he set the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade seems farther away from today's name-calling and hollow battles over motives than the outer reaches of our solar system. The debate, and our so-called leaders, have become earthbound in every respect.
It is possible to understand this in the context of America's financial morass, but that is only part of the story and an insufficient excuse for the failure to conjure or cultivate great dreams. More damning than the failure to limn grand ideas -- because that happens from time to time -- is our unwillingness to commit to them with what it takes to bring them to fruition. This is especially true when it comes to those notions that require the forces and resources that made the space program great: a transcendent belief in science and engineering and the power of rigorously applied human knowledge.