The landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and astronauts walking on it on July 20, 1969, is typically known as the greatest achievement of mankind. The world was a different place back then.
The quest for moon landing domination began in 1961 with then-President John F. Kennedy; a so-called “space race” with the Soviet Union, which had apparently embarrassed the United States after sending the first cosmonaut to outer space in 1961. Meanwhile, in the same year, Kennedy was escalating U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War (which had begun in 1955) with the intention of preventing the expansion of Communism. The number of troops sent to Vietnam in 1961 are as follows: May, 400 American Green Beret Special Advisors; October, 200,000 men from six divisions of the military and more than 16,000 special advisors. Cost of war by October 1961: $1 million per day.
By 1969, Apollo 11 was ready to launch, captivating audiences around the globe. It was surely one great leap for mankind. Meanwhile, in 1968, the Vietnam War racked up its highest annual U.S. casualty count at 16,899; by the end of 1969, close to 50,000 U.S. military service members had died in the Vietnam War. Total U.S. death count by 1975, when it officially ended: 58,318. The death toll of Vietnamese fighters and civilians varies widely from hundreds of thousands to over 3 million, depending on the source. The exponential impacts of exposure to 18 million gallons of Agent Orange, however, take a back seat to the casualties of violence. The cost of the Vietnam War: $141 billion, according to a 1975 New York Times article. Calculating for inflation today, estimates show it would be close to $1 trillion in 2019. But hey, we made it to the moon. Too bad Kennedy never got to see the culmination of his efforts for both feats, an insight surely we would all learn and gain from today.
Flash forward, 50 years later, when we celebrate the accomplishment of the moon landing, even as our country seems to be in another state of disarray. While we do currently still have wars being waged over efforts to stop terrorism — Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians — we now have the iPhone, humankind’s greatest achievement in technological obsession, along with social media to air our grievances about the atrocities of war and the pride we have in landing and walking on the moon first. Meanwhile, suicide and overdose death rates continue to rise, cancer diagnoses continue to alarm millions and the country is about as polarized as any living person remembers it to be. But hey, we still have freedom of the press and the Kardashians?
Despite its contributions to the historic Apollo 11 mission, parents in Simi Valley have been fighting for a full cleanup of Rocketdyne for decades. A nuclear reactor at Santa Susana Field Laboratory had a partial meltdown in 1959, 60 years ago this month, but it was also the birth place of the rocket boosters for Apollo 11 and other spacecraft. Though parents have come together to voice their concerns over the unusual number of rare pediatric cancers of families living near Rocketdyne, it apparently now takes the Kardashians to push the federal government to clean up the site. Kourtney and Kim have added it to their list of causes for press conferences.
Understandably, no good deed goes unpunished, but really, why would celebrity take precedence over human suffering for attention? In this day and age, most people would agree, “we will take what we can get.” Sometimes, it just feels like a circus.
Moving forward into the next generation of achievement, there is so much to learn from the past. But what is most critical? What is the accomplishment of humanity in light of so much suffering and death?
Hope. Hope is our greatest accomplishment since the dawn of man. Without it, certain grief, sorrow, even death. With it, tremendous potential to change the mindset where we instead focus on living our best lives, together.