As any Baby Boomer knows, nothing in our early childhood gave us a bigger shot of patriotism and exhilaration than the U.S. space program. America had experienced many low points in those years — assassinations, Vietnam, racial strife — but the space program was a constant and much-needed source of awe and heroism.
When President Kennedy announced in 1962 that Americans would land a manned spacecraft on the moon by the end of the decade — “not because it’s easy but because it’s haaard” —it felt like more than just a challenge to NASA. It felt like a mission for all of us. And we all seemed to embark on it together.
We watched each launch and splashdown landing, holding our breath every time. Kids collected mementos with the pictures of our heroes — the original 7 astronauts — all of whom felt like family. We rejoiced at each accomplishment and mourned the tragic losses.
I can still vividly recall the shock and sadness of the deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee during an Apollo training exercise. And I remember standing at Tiger Stadium for a moment of silence as I prayed with all my might for the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew. (Al Kaline went 0-4, but Earl Wilson pitched 9 innings for the win over the Indians.)
The moon landing on July 20, 1969, was the ultimate feat — just pure and indescribable joy. When Neil Armstrong emerged from the capsule to step onto the lunar surface, we watched that scratchy black and white image on our TVs with our hearts in our throats. That first step was much more than just a scientific achievement; it was a soul-saving moment for a beleaguered nation. Despite all our struggles, for that one moment American greatness seemed irrefutably restored. JFK’s challenge had been met, even if he and Bobby weren’t there to witness it. With an American flag planted on the surface of the moon, it briefly felt as if that symbol alone meant everything was going to be alright.
Last week I finally got a chance to visit the mythical place where it all happened — the Kennedy Space Center, formerly Cape Canaveral. For this Boomer the place felt like sacred ground.
We passed Grissom Road and parked in the Wally Schirra section of the parking lot. In the distance, we could see Launch Pad 39B, the legendary liftoff site for Apollo 10 and all the moon missions that followed. As we got closer, we immediately saw at least a dozen huge rockets, some upright and others displayed sideways — like a collection of Manhattan skyscrapers. The Saturn V rocket, used during the Apollo program, is 363 taller than the Statue of Liberty.
The place is not what I expected. It’s much better. Everything is massive. The actual footprint is six miles wide and 34 miles long, larger than Denver or New Orleans. The tour is completely authentic, not a cheesy Disney-esqe vibe at all. The array of past spacecrafts are real — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and the Challenger, many with the burns and scars from re-entry in the earth’s atmosphere. You see the real control rooms, the real spacesuits, even actual wreckage from the Columbia disaster. You not only see a real moon rock, you get to touch it (it felt like a rock).
There are incredible IMAX films of launches and landings, and tasteful tributes to the astronauts who lost their lives in the course of their missions.
The real impact of the experience isn’t the things you see but the feelings they invoke. In one of the videos, astronaut Gene Cernan appears and says:
Nothing is impossible. They should remove that word from the dictionary. I lived on the moon for three days so don’t tell me anything’s impossible.
To me, that said it all. That was — and is — the essence of the space program. When you tour the Kennedy Space Center, you realize that although people there have done miraculous things, they are not super humans but rather ordinary people who met seemingly impossible challenges with courage, ingenuity and resolve.
The examples are everywhere, especially in the early years of the program. You learn about the failures and uncertainties. You see how frequently they just needed to improvise and hope it worked. Up close, the first lunar rover looks like an 8th grade science project. It appears rickety and amateurish — but of course it got the job done.
At one point of the tour you take a bus to get to the site of the space shuttle and the new Artemis rocket, which will take future astronauts to the moon to eventually establish a permanent presence there. The initial Artemis crew will include a female astronaut and a person of color.
Visiting the Space Center reminded me that the space program is not an historical footnote, but an ongoing mission for future generations. I left convinced that all Americans — especially children — need to see the place. Everyone needs to see how big dreams can become reality, how NASA’s can-do attitude wasn’t deterred by repeated setbacks, even tragedies. You see a brave and focused vision for the future that perhaps will become commonplace for our children and our grandchildren.
As Gene Cernan said, “Nothing is impossible.” More than the mantra for the incredible people of NASA — it’s a message of hope and inspiration to us all.