“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
–President John F. Kennedy
Last night I attended a presentation of The Blue-Sky Boys at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. (If you’ve never been to the Barter Theatre, you need to make it a destination the next time you’re in southwestern Virginia–it’s a real treat.) To tell the story behind The Blue-Sky Boys, I’ll use the words of director Nicholas Piper, which started with the above quote from JFK.
It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly fifty years since President Kennedy issued this challenge. These words could be delivered today and be just as relevant.
What a bold, courageous, impossible challenge that was. We were in a race for the moon against the Russians. In fact, if the Russians hadn’t put a man in space first, we probably would have never gotten to the moon in that decade. We needed that spark, that challenge, to ignite our efforts.
In retrospect, the point wasn’t to get to the moon. The point was to challenge ourselves–to stretch our imaginations, to have faith that with hard work, courage, creativity, teamwork and persistence, the impossible could become possible.
The ’60’s were a time of great upheaval–a year after JFK gave this speech, he would be assassinated. His brother, Robert, would be killed five years later, and so would Martin Luther King, Jr. We were embroiled in an unpopular war and our country was divided. We needed hope. We needed something to remind us how great we could be. Sound familiar?
The space race captured our country’s imagination. Whether you were an eight-year-old boy or an eighty-year-old man, the race to the moon was a thrilling one. The astronauts who put their lives on the line were the equivalent of rock stars. The technology that was developed to put men on the moon became the computers, the cell phones, the Internet we take for granted today.
But there was an even larger accomplishment.
When Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin returned from their triumphant Apollo 11 moon landing, they went on a 45-day “Giant Leap” worldwide tour. Michael Collins said the thing that most struck him was that people all over the world would come up to him and say, “We did it!” Not, “you did it” or “they did it.” We did it. In other words, this was more than an American triumph; this was a human triumph.
Sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to look back.
Imagine a task so daunting, so challenging, that it can only be accomplished if each of us gives our very best…
Imagine an accomplishment so great that it redefines who we are, not just as a people, but as a species…
Imagine an event so significant, that it brings a divided country–a divided world–together for just a moment…
The above sets the stage for the production, featuring three fictional NASA rocket scientists and a presidential science advisor during the span of 1961 through 1969. The stage props were wonderful, down to the gray government-issue desk that looked identical to the one I used when I arrived at NASA over twenty years ago! As I watched the production, I saw a central theme unfold–the role of imagination and creativity in solving the tremendous challenge of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely before the decade was out. The imaginations of each character was cleverly embodied through appearances by Buck Rogers, Galileo, the Red Baron and Snoopy, the Greek god Apollo, Tycho Brahe, Icarus, and Louis Leakey. For the fictional NASA rocket scientists, the imagined characters embodied a key word that drove them forward to face the daunting challenges of meeting Kennedy’s goal; that word is why.
Each character individually had his why that collectively answered the why put forward by JFK. The challenges and failures along the way caused each character to question his why. Yet through soul searching with the embodied imaginations, each was able to reconnect with his why and move forward to achieve the goal.
In looking at our situation today in human spaceflight, each of us needs to ask ourselves why, and individually identify our answer as to why. See, without why there is no purpose, no reason to go forward with human spaceflight. It is through conversations about our whys that we can find common ground and unite around a larger why. Our why individually gives us a sense of purpose; the larger why addresses the larger sense of purpose. Imagine what would happen if each of us had and could act on our why that tied to a grander why. Imagine the possibilities….