Video of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon: “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us that the virtue of magnificence — the virtue of doing great things — is a species of courage, which should be distinguished from mere liberality. While American society was doing many things during this period — such as halting the spread of Communism, providing widespread aid to the poor, attempting to widen civil rights for all Americans, greatly increasing the standard of living, and building massive public infrastructure — none were as magnificent as the lunar program, for its clearly obvious success or failure was intimately tied to national honor. While the value of the lives of the Apollo 11 astronauts who travelled to the moon — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — were of no greater value than any other human being, ensuring their safe return was a magnificent goal, and failure would have ensured national shame.
The goal of landing man on the moon was proposed by President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961, before a joint session of Congress:
First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations—explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.I find it so amusing that some youths today — who cannot remember that time — have doubts that this moon landing ever took place. Perhaps this is due to a wrong notion of progress (people couldn't have been so smart back then), or because of the great strides made in technology today, especially computer and network technology. Most likely of all is the fact that these moon landings have not been duplicated within their lifetimes. Rather, doubtful youth ought to study some of the history of the era, in particular Wernher von Braun, a German scientist captured after World War II, who developed the general architecture of the moon rocket. Apollo technical information can be found here and here.
But the Apollo moon landings were magnificent, and such acts of magnificence can only be done once in a generation, otherwise they would not be great acts, but rather ordinary and wasteful acts. By their very nature, magnificent acts are to be looked back upon and admired, and not duplicated. By comparison, the construction of a great Cathedral is magnificent, and it is an act that need not be duplicated as long as it stands.
The Apollo moon program was cancelled before completion. While having a total of two or three landings was prudent, perhaps the plan of having ten total landings was wasteful, turning the great act of traveling to the moon and back for the very first time into the very expensive and ordinary act of visiting the moon regularly. While significant scientific information was gained during subsequent landings, the single most important scientific result was already known.
Photograph of Buzz Aldrin in his spacesuit, taken by Neil Armstrong who is seen reflected in the visor.
Our contemporary scientific view of the heavens is surprisingly consonant with the Medieval notion — the moon and planets have mere existence and are otherwise likely cold and dead, a “magnificent desolation”, in the words of Buzz Aldrin. But the genre of science fiction has the starry heavens filled with life and persons, with travel between the planets being relatively quick, simple, inexpensive, and ordinary, and that genre reinforces this view even today. Rather, both Medieval and contemporary science both agree that the Earth itself is more important than the stars.
The Saturn V booster launches the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
The Apollo 11 moon landing is perhaps the crowning achievement of the era that we may call High Modernism, a period which also includes the Second Vatican Council. This was an era of optimism, the culmination of the Enlightenment, and the moon landing was the greatest achievement that man himself had ever performed, when man actually had the will and ability to do what was merely dreamed of before. But let us not forget that this was an era of great decline, especially moral decline.
Almost exactly one year before, Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae was loudly rejected by many, causing splits in the Church that exist to this day, and youth were rioting in the streets against the very structure of society in all its forms. These rebels were promoting both Libertarianism — you will not tell me what I may do; and Marxism — I will tell you what you must do. Rather than a reaction against the Modernism which led to the moon landings, this was rather the radical culmination of the Enlightenment project, taking its assumptions of subjectivity to its limits. The old philosophical notions handed down from Socrates and the churchmen, still assumed even if not explicitly held by society, were discarded by the new regime.
The U.S. space program consequently suffered under this new regime. The manned space program was to become both businesslike and also politically correct. A business of course, seeks to maximize its own profit, while political correctness has political goals placed above mission objectives. The manned Space Shuttle program clearly failed in the goals that were initially promised, seeming to be more self-serving than anything else. Certainly it isn't magnificent, nor could it be, even though it is expensive, and it is not profitable either. But on the contrary, I must commend the unmanned space program, which has generated a continuous stream of valuable scientific information at a prudent cost.
When he proposed the lunar mission, President Kennedy also had practical applications of space in mind, profitable and useful things that we now take for granted:
Third, an additional 50 million dollars will make the most of our present leadership, by accelerating the use of space satellites for world-wide communications.Although Kennedy is often recalled nowadays for his scandalous private life, I think that his Catholic upbringing may have given him a few good ideas about the virtues anyway. The magnificence of his lunar program should be compared to his own military experience and his insistence that he appear before the people largely unprotected. As the Medieval kings who would ride into battle at the head of their army, Kennedy would ride exposed to the hostile world in an open-top automobile. And like the ancient kings, he was attacked, and he died. According to the old ways of thinking, a ruler who was not willing to take the same risks as his subjects is hardly suited to rule.
Fourth, an additional 75 million dollars—of which 53 million dollars is for the Weather Bureau—will help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.
The original astronauts in the U.S. manned space program were specifically selected because they were healthy, virtuous, and professional. They were expected to get along with their peers and mission staff and were expected to both do exactly what they were told and to creatively come up with good solutions independently as needed. These men had long proven military experience and were already approaching middle age when selected. They also recognized that their missions were likely fatal, and astronauts did die. Anxiety, denial, and self-absorption were not options. (By the way, my middle name ‘Scott’ is taken after one of the seven original astronauts, Scott Carpenter.)
I remember fondly the magnificent achievement of the lunar landing! If such greatness is not to be found today, it is because society does not value virtue. Magnificence can only be found with courage.