Lessons in virtue from Apollo 11

George Weigel

Fifty years ago this week, the crew of Apollo 11, the world’s latest heroes, were doing decidedly unheroic things: napping, drinking beer, playing cards, reading magazines, and otherwise killing time in the Manned Spacecraft Center’s “Lunar Receiving Facility,” where they were quarantined to ensure that no lethal bugs had been brought back from the Moon’s surface by Neil Armstrong (who saved the mission to taking personal control of Eagle and landing it safely after overflying a vast field of lunar boulders), Buzz Aldrin (who memorably described the moonscape as one of “magnificent desolation”), and Michael Collins (who, orbiting the Moon in Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin were on its  surface, was more alone than any human being since Genesis 2:22). The Lab was perhaps the least glamorous (and, as things turned out, least necessary) of NASA’s Apollonian inventions. For as Charles Fishman vividly illustrates in One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon and Schuster), just about everything involved in effecting that “one small step….[and] one giant leap” had to be imagined, and then fabricated, from scratch.

When President John F. Kennedy verbally committed the country in April 1961 to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the decade was out, no one knew how to do that. No one. NASA chief James Webb, who hadn’t been given advance warning of Kennedy’s pledge, asked his senior staff whether we can “do this.” An uncomfortable silence followed. No one knew for sure.

About what? About everything.

No one knew the appropriate mission architecture: One enormous spacecraft that would go out and back? Or a “stack” of different spacecraft that would do different jobs — en route to the Moon, while there, and on the way home?

No one knew how to maneuver in space: Orbital mechanics weren’t entirely understood and orbital navigation was therefore in its infancy. Nor were there computers capable of making the instant calculations necessary to rendezvous two spacecraft in orbit (around the Earth or the Moon) — which was essential when the “stack” scheme was  adopted as the basic mission architecture, with a command module and a lunar module (itself consisting of two parts) having different functions but requiring assembly by “rendezvous and docking” in Earth orbit, and a later, similar maneuver in lunar orbit.

Was it possible to build and program a computer light enough to install on a spacecraft but powerful enough to do the necessary navigational calculations and guaranteed to get everything right every time (the consequence of slight computer failure often being mission catastrophe)? No one knew, because no one had ever done it before.

Nor did anyone know exactly what the Moon was like: Would a lander sink into the lunar dust? And if not (as soon became fairly clear), how many legs should a lunar lander have: Five for optimal balance? Would four do? (Four would.)

What about the rockets necessary for launch from Earth, for course-adjustment in flight, and from the Moon’s surface? In 1961, American rockets had a disconcerting tendency to blow up on the launch pad or explode shortly after ignition. Could booster rockets and spacecraft engines be built that would work all the time: here, in space, and in the Moon’s environment?

Yet in less than eight years, NASA and its academic and industry associates resolved every one of these questions — and solved some 10,000 more conceptual and technical problems. It was an extraordinary exercise in creativity and cooperation involving some 400,000 people. How did it happen? Answering that question, as Mr. Fishman does with panache, tells us a lot about what genuine national greatness involves: commitment to a grand goal; a willingness to think outside the conventions; the courage to face failure, examine its causes without prejudice, and change what needs changing to get things right; self-sacrifice to the common good; solidarity, expressed as esprit de corps; and no cutting the corners of excellence for the sake of identity politics, political correctness, or partisan advantage.

The tendency to remember Project Apollo as mere technological wizardry, albeit of a very high order, should be resisted. There were great virtues involved in this remarkable adventure, and without those virtues there wouldn’t be six American flags planted on the Moon by a dozen American citizens. Whether those virtues exist in sufficient measure today is an important question to ponder on this golden anniversary.

COMING UP: On the new ‘nationalism’

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Thanks to President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and the rise of populist-nationalist parties in Europe, there’s a lot of debate about “nationalism” these days. On that subject, as on so many others, it’s worth listening to Pope St. John Paul II, not least because last month marked the 40th anniversary of his epochal Nine Days in Poland in June 1979 — days on which the history of the 20th century pivoted in a more humane direction.

To revisit John Paul II’s homilies and addresses during the Nine Days, and especially his homily in Gniezno on June 3, is to learn important lessons for today about nation, nationalism, and patriotism. Karol Wojtyla was surely a Polish patriot; he had, after all, deliberately celebrated his first three Masses in the St. Leonard’s Crypt of Cracow’s Wawel Cathedral, surrounded by Polish heroes like King Jan III Sobieski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko. At the same time, Wojtyla’s Polish and Cracovian roots, experience, and loyalties led him to an appreciation of the spiritual unity of the Slavic peoples, and indeed of the cultural unity of Europe.

John Paul II was not a “European” in some theoretical sense. As he made clear at Gniezno on June 3, 1979, he had come to a vision of Europe — whole and free, breathing with both its lungs, East and West — through his Cracovian and Polish experience, not despite that experience. Thus his Polish patriotism was not chauvinistic or xenophobic; it was open to those who were “other.” Poland, sometimes betrayed and too often ignored by the West, was, he insisted, woven into the tapestry of Europe. So were many other national experiences and stories. In that sense, it’s not hard to imagine John Paul II being sympathetic to contemporary critiques of the European Union’s tendency to level out national and cultural differences.

Yet in his later musings on history, John Paul raised some important cautions about nationalism; here is what he wrote in his last published book, Memory and Identity:

“…nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities…[Yet] one thing must be avoided at all costs [–]…an unhealthy nationalism. Of this, the twentieth century has supplied some all too eloquent examples, with disastrous consequences. How can we be delivered from such a danger? I think the right way is through patriotism. Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism….is a love of one’s own native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.”

Can we find instances of a national patriotism that reaches out in support of others, for the sake of both national interest and a broad sense of national purpose? Two examples come immediately to mind; they should be pondered by today’s new nationalists, in America, Europe, and elsewhere.

The first involved U.S. recognition of the State of Israel, which declared its independence as of midnight, May 14, 1948. That very same day, President Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state, against the fierce opposition of a lot of the State Department and his own Secretary of State, the great George C. Marshall. Marshall, who believed that recognition of a Jewish state opposed by the Arabs of the Middle East was geopolitical madness, even told Truman that he wouldn’t vote for him later that year if Truman insisted on accepting an Israeli declaration of independence and recognizing the provisional government led by David Ben-Gurion. Yet Truman believed that recognition of Israel was the right thing to do, irrespective of the friction it would cause; so he did it, in an act of statesmanship that far transcended national interest.

The second example also involved Mr. Truman: the creation of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. On this, its 70th birthday, NATO is history’s most successful defensive alliance. When NATO was first bruited, however, the idea of the United States binding itself to defend European democracies was opposed by many who had gathered under the banner of “America First” in the 1930s and during the 1940 presidential campaign. No one doubts the patriotism of those men and women; but their concept of national interest was too narrow for the times.

A similar myopia should be avoided in 2019. John Paul II’s idea of patriotism might help point a way.