The Day the American Dream Came True
I was there; I saw it all.
Not literally there, of course. Bodily speaking, I lounged on a sofa in the comfortably shabby den of a friend’s house, whose parents were hosting a moon landing party. But my heart, my spirit, and all of my attention, along with most people in the country and much of the rest of the world, were riveted to the television.
At 3:17pm, Pacific Time, the Eagle touched down. Unbelievably, the lunar module — the tip of the Apollo 11 rocket ship that had shot off from Florida days previously and had managed, through determination and audacity and wizardry, to find its way to the actual moon — slowly settled itself on ground that was not part of the Earth. There was the compact, cone-shaped contraption, with people inside it, sitting right there on the moon.
Walter Cronkite commented on the proceedings. We listened to live audio from mission control, and the scratchy but eerily present voices of the crew themselves. Hours passed. We were high school kids, squirrelly, irreverent, and typically full of ourselves, but in those hours we couldn’t tear our attention away from the screen. The air around us hummed with suspense, with possibility, with breathtaking hope.
At last, at 7:56pm, on this date in 1969, Neil Armstrong’s boot stepped firmly onto the powdery lunar surface. I don’t have to tell you what he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Later reports inserted the article “a” when they quoted him: That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. But that’s not what he said. He said, “man.” I was there; I was paying attention. And there’s a Wikiquote to back me up on this. Apparently he’d meant to say “a man,” but I thought then, and I still do, that the way he said those words in that moment resonated with brilliant precision.
In that unutterably thrilling moment, Neil Armstrong was not “a man” up there. He was all of us, everyone in America, everyone in the world, who yearned and dreamed and believed that, as humans, we could surpass ourselves. We could overcome our limitations, our foolhardiness, our petty squabbles, our prejudices, our worst instincts. Together, with enough genius and grit, we could do astounding things.
We proved that. We sent human beings to the moon, and they had walked there. They left footprints and a flag, still there, and brought back rocks, still here. And then, thanks to the unheralded work of hundreds of thousands of people, including women and people of color whose contributions went unacknowledged for decades, we brought those men safely home.
Thinking of that day rekindles the excitement and pride, the sense of expansion and vision that infused our vision of our future. I am grateful, now, to be old enough to have lived that moment firsthand. It gives me much to draw on, in this present chapter of our national story which seems so dark by comparison, so corrupted with greed and hatred.
Whether America will recover its brightness remains to be seen. Nothing is guaranteed, and much is in peril. But having witnessed that event — seeing that small, fragile man in his cumbersome suit take that awesome step, the culmination of a bold, shared vision — is ineradicable evidence of our potential for greatness.
I hope and pray we find it again.