The American Way

We’ve talked some this week about Apollo 11, indeed the whole early space program, and we’re going to today as well.

S[ecofically, how very American the whole thing was. Joshua Lawson at The Federalist says.

In the 2008 space documentary “When We Left Earth,” while addressing the success of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders remarked that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were “humans” who “just happened to be Americans.”

Last year, Canadian actor Ryan Gosling played Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazell’s biopic “First Man.” In an echo of Anders’s comments from a decade earlier, Gosling raised the eyebrows of many Americans when he said the moon landing was “widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that’s how the team making “First Man” chose to view it.

These statements are part of a trend of historical revisionism that paints every American achievement as universal and global while portraying the nation’s past sins as exclusively American. In truth, NASA’s missions in general—and the Apollo 11 moon landing in particular—represent an odds-defying triumph of American exceptionalism.

In good forthright American terms, “It’s bullshit”. Only in America. It’s another attempt to denigrate America, although more subtle than usual.

Like many of the most inspiring adventures in history, the American moon landing is a comeback story. The United States began the space race trailing the Soviet Union. In 1957, the U.S.S.R. stunned the world when they successfully launched the Sputnik satellite into orbit. The first man in space was not an American but Soviet Yuri Gagarin.

Those involved in the first days of NASA were flabbergasted at the early Soviet success. Space correspondent Jay Barbree recalls the sentiment of the time: “These people couldn’t build a refrigerator…how can they get into orbit?”

Rather than looking at the initial score in the space race and giving up, Americans saw the deficit they had to overcome and were emboldened. The Soviets touched a nerve. Unknowingly, they reinvigorated the determined, persevering, and rugged streak embodied in the very nature of the United States. In the drive to remain the preeminent leader in science and engineering, the NASA missions tapped into something deep within the American character.

The space program that led to men landing on the surface of the moon is part of the grand narrative of Americans braving forth and conquering the unknown. The Apollo program and the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded them were victories of innovation, adaptation, and a hungry (and distinctively American) competitive instinct. Although there were certainly some non-American-born engineers and scientists working for NASA in the 1960s, the entire endeavor was fundamentally American in its ethos.

Looking back. it reminds me of nothing so much as Babe Ruth in Wrigley Field all those years ago ‘calling his shot’ and then doing it. But then, like the Mitchell Raid showed, America is the Babe Ruth of nations. Tell us something is impossible and we’ll just ‘get ‘er done; quicker.

Like a lot of people, I liked President Kennedy. Part of that is that I was too young (and too sheltered) to understand some of his flaws, but a lot of it was that he believed in the sort of America that I did. At Rice University, he said this in 1961 he said this:

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 … [the] challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

That’s powerful stuff, isn’t it? Echoes that Marine Sargeant in Belleau Wood a half-century before Kennedy’s speech, “Come on you sonsabitches! You want to live forever?” But compare it to this, from William Bradford, from over a century before we even became Americans:

…all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages…all of them, through the help of God, by fortitude and patience, might either be borne, or overcome.

Once you account for the changes in the vernacular language, it’s the same damn speech! And it’s not a speech, any Frenchmen or Spaniard, and not even many Englishmen would make, although quite a few Aussies might. Good people they may all be, they’re followers. We’re not, we lead. Follow me, it says on the statue at the Infantry School, it does not say, together we shall overcome.

Kennedy was on to something when he harnessed the idea of a “New Frontier” during the 1960 presidential election race. After the U.S. Census of 1890 reported the closing of the American frontier in the West, historian Frederick Jackson Turner revealed that much of what made America so exceptional and successful could be tied to the exploration of its expansive frontier.

This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities … furnish the forces dominating American character. … At the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish. …Early Western man was an idealist withal. He dreamed dreams and beheld visions. He had faith in man, hope for democracy, belief in America’s destiny, unbounded confidence in his ability to make his dreams come true.

In the roughest days of the American West, the harsh, unforgiving, and trying experience of trying to eke out a living was a baptism of fire. The nation’s character was both forged and revealed in the conditions of the Old West.

Turner observed that America owes its most striking attributes to the frontier. It took a particular brand of dogged determinism to fight against the unforgiving climate, an often-hostile native population, and the ever-present threat of failure.

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism … withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier.

In short, as General Patton said,

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

It’s time we remembered who we are, and acted like it.


The Most Recent Man to Walk on the Moon

The most recent man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, Capt, USN, ret, BSEE ’56, Purdue, died Monday.

It’s hard to emphasize enough what the space program meant to us in the 60s. If we were thoughtful at all, it brought home to us the kind of dedication that had seen us through World War Two and allowed us to face down the Soviet Union, so far. But at Purdue, it was more than that, it must kind of been like having been in Portsmouth back when the Golden Hind had docked after sailing around the world. My God, it was exciting stuff.

And Purdue was one of the epicenters, sitting right out there in the Hoosier cornfields, well, it was one of the way stations to the stars. Actually, it still is, The Cradle of Astronauts, many call it. It’s justified. In my family, one went to one of two schools, the girls to Valparaiso University, and I followed my brother-in-law to Purdue. In large measure it was an act of hero worship, for him, a CE, for my dad, who quit school in the 11th grade, but may have been the best engineer I have known, but also for those guys, whose names we all knew, from the guys who flew the missions in World War Two, through the first and most recent men on the moon. Who didn’t want to be like them? Well, as they all knew happens, duty intervened. But even now, as a fairly old man, I admire them inordinately. Heroes they were, and are.

Gene was one of the best, and he’ll be missed. It’s always reassuring to know that men like him are in the world, and you know, for all the nonsense we deal with, they’re are a lot of them around. Few are famous, for not everybody can be first, and people like this often believe second is the first loser. But every time you see a man, or woman doing their duty regardless, they are one of them. They are the best of us.

“Gene Cernan was a true hero, a pioneer in aviation and, to us, one of the greatest Boilermakers of all time,” said Purdue President Mitch Daniels. “He will be remembered in the history books as the most recent human to step on the moon. We will remember him as a valued friend and an inspiration to take risks and reach for our goals.”

Cernan earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue in 1956 and an honorary doctorate in engineering in 1970. He was one of 14 astronauts chosen by NASA in October 1963.

“Although Gene Cernan is most often described as ‘the last man to walk on the moon,’ it is most appropriate for us to remember that he insisted on ‘most recent.’ Long after Apollo 17, he continued to inspire our dreams for the future. He was proud to be a Purdue engineer; we will miss him,” said Leah Jamieson, the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering.

Mike Berghoff, chair of Purdue Board of Trustees said, “His accomplishments in space provided generations of Boilermakers, especially Purdue students, evidence that your careers can be built around your dreams and passions.”

A long-time supporter of Purdue, Cernan served as co-chair of a major fundraising campaign with fellow astronaut and Purdue alum Neil Amstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon.

And you know, so many things that we take for granted today, some as mundane as Velcro, were developed for the space program, when I was a young man, I had a subscription to a NASA publication, the purpose of which was to share technical ideas, and products/developments which NASA had developed with American industry, and the breadth of what they worked on was simply breathtaking.

And now, another one is gone, but will never be forgotten. Brigadier General Chuck Yeager once said

You don’t concentrate on risks. You concentrate on results. No risk is too great to prevent the necessary job from getting done.

That is as good a description of those men and women as I’ve ever read. I count it as the luckiest thing in my life that I knew so many of them.

Godspeed, Gene, and Rest in Peace.



Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.



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