We Used to Do Big Things in America
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Neil Armstrong, the Moon, July 20, 1969
Texas was at the center of America’s exploration of space virtually from the beginning. However, this piece is not specifically about Texas. It is a personal reflection, growing up in Texas, of my history and fascination with space, and a disappointment that American goals today are unworthy of our people and our spirit. Originally published on August 28, 2012, shortly after the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, I thought it appropriate to republish it on the 50th anniversary of that historic event. The sentiments expressed seven years ago are just as ardent today.
One of my earliest memories as a child was leaning against the bare back of my father, looking over his shoulder, as he sat cross-legged on the floor watching our grainy black and white, wood cabinet encased, television set. I don’t remember the year. I like to think it was July 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface. I do remember, however, how mesmerized my father was in what was taking place on television. Men were walking on the moon. Not just any men, but American men—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
And the fascination and pride of the father became the fascination and pride of the son.
We had family that lived in the Huston area and every summer we vacationed in Freeport, Texas. Summers were spent on the beach and on deep sea fishing boats . . . and at the Johnson Space Center, where I collected Apollo mission patches and bought toy rockets. As the years went by and I grew, we continued to sunburn on the beaches of Freeport, catch red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, and tour the Space Center in Huston. I fantasized about driving a lunar rover. I watched in stunned silence at the audacity of Skylab. I poured over the early concepts for the Space Shuttle. And I hoped that the futuristic dreams of establishing a colony on the moon would come true, and that Americans would use it as a launching pad for Martian exploration.
We use to dream big in America.
We use to do big things in America.
And it made me proud to call her home.
John Kennedy challenged us to do hard things—big things—like land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the decade of the ’60s had ended. Why? “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, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
We didn’t postpone that goal. We did measure our energies and skills. And we did do the hard thing. And we met the challenge.
A quarter century later another American president comforted a mournful nation after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. I watched the Challenger launch in the communications building at the University of Texas at Austin. And I watched Ronald Reagan address the nation from my Austin apartment. Because Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher, was one of the astronauts Reagan reserved a special message for children:
I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
We continued on the brave path and followed the Challenger crew into the future through subsequent Shuttle missions and the construction of the International Space Station, and even past the tragedy of the Space Shuttle Columba’s re-entry explosion.
Like my father, I often took my children to the same beaches and the same Gulf and the same Johnson Space Center. Christy and I made it a point to watch all the Shuttle launches and landings we could with our children. We bought them toy rockets and space “junk” from the Johnson gift shop. I even have a model of the Space Shuttle Discover in my office. Why? Because we use to do big thing in this country and I want my children to know our history and be proud to call America home.
The recent death of Neil Armstrong reminded again that we use to do big things in America. I’m not sure what we’re doing in America today, but they don’t seem so big. And that’s not something to be proud of—not for a dad who would like to sit cross-legged on the floor watching his plasma television mesmerized and fascinated by the bravery and audacity of a county that used to do big things.