“Men have landed and walked on the moon.”
With those words, printed 51 years ago this week in The New York Times, John Noble Wilford not only penned one of the greatest ledes in the history of journalism but also captured the essence of what made the moon landing such an extraordinary, epochal event.
“It was,” wrote Wilford, “man’s first landing on another world, the realization of centuries of dreams, the fulfillment of a decade of striving, a triumph of modern technology and personal courage, the most dramatic demonstration of what man can do if he applies his mind and resources with single-minded determination.”
I think of these words often and what they tell us about the ingenuity, creativity, and ambitions of our species — that there are few challenges too difficult or too great if we set a course toward solving them.
They also remind us of how far we have fallen. While America once accomplished great feats, it now struggles to surmount challenges that other countries have met with grit and resolve.
In the months since the coronavirus pandemic arrived on American shores, we have seen what happens when leadership, courage, and sacrifice are lacking.
A diverse array of countries from South Korea and Japan to Slovakia and the Czech Republic were among the first to mandate mask-wearing to prevent the spread of the disease. As a result, they’ve kept the virus at bay. Here in America, political partisanship is still preventing mask mandates from being implemented nationwide, which is undoubtedly part of the reason a nation with 4 percent of the world’s population has 26 percent of all global coronavirus cases.
Germany has also shown the way on bearing the economic brunt from the pandemic. With direct payments to workers, support to businesses for keeping employees on their payroll, and even new money for investments in green technologies, Germany has, for now, weathered the worst of the pandemic storm. Meanwhile in the United States, as Congress dithers, unemployment benefits that kept the economy from falling into a full-blown depression are set to expire at the end of this week.
Just as America conquered the celestial realm 50 years ago, there’s no reason why this country could not have been a leader in confronting COVID-19. America has the resources, the ingenuity, and the capacity. What is lacking now was in abundance then —vision, leadership, and a commitment to see a job through. The US response to the coronavirus has been to put a Band-Aid on a gushing wound and say everything is fine, even as the hemorrhaging continues.
While it’s easy — and hardly inappropriate — to blame Donald Trump for this calamitous series of events, America’s problems predate his tenure.
America has failed to tackle the challenge of the coronavirus in much the same way it has shirked at the challenge of reducing gun violence, ending the opioid addiction crisis, dealing with climate change, and a host of public health challenges, from obesity to infant mortality. Even the simplest of political hurdles — infrastructure spending — has not been immune to America’s suffocating dysfunction and political polarization.
Indeed, the one place where America has long led — scientific and technological innovation — we’re now falling behind other countries. When the Bloomberg Innovation Index first began ranking the most innovative countries in 2013, the United States was number one. Today it ranks ninth.
In the 1960s, more US federal dollars were spent on scientific research and development than the rest of the world combined. It’s what allowed the United States to become a world leader in technological innovation. Today, said Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who has written on the history of Silicon Valley, “the bedrock public investments in the innovation system—affordable public higher education, basic research investments in science, regulation, and antitrust enforcement — have struggled” with predictable outcomes.
“We have looked with great hope,” said O’Mara, “to Silicon Valley tech to inspire and pay for innovation, but even the richest companies don’t have the money the federal agencies do.” While there is innovation in venture capital that money primarily goes toward companies likely to earn a profit for investors. Doing societal good is usually a secondary consideration. “Private companies and philanthropies get to choose the moon shots of today,” said O’Mara.
Indeed, it is a private company, not NASA, that is now transporting Americans to outer space.
To be sure, America in the ’60s was a far from perfect place — and the striking lack of racial and gender diversity in the early space program is a reminder of that. But five decades ago, at least it could be said that America strived toward and accomplished innovative, historic goals. Now we have become, as Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen puts it, “the can’t-do society.”
Today, what America needs is not a challenge to travel through outer space, but rather to recognize how enfeebled we’ve become and a commitment to once again shoot for the moon — but here at home.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.