Much has been made of it, and should be: A movie describing Apollo 11’s moon landing, curiously entitled “First Man” and not “First Men,” omits raising the American flag on the moon, an act in which both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin participated. The omission is material, inexcusable – and fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the successful American moon landing. Here is why.
On the national level, America was locked in more than a technological race with the Soviet Union. The moon race was a test of wills, systems and resolve – a closed, secretive, communist and totalitarian Soviet Union against the open, optimistic, capitalist and democratic United States of America.
The “space race” was part of the Cold War, and moonshot a capstone in that competition between communist repression and American freedom. It was a deliberate proxy for “hot war,” which would have been nuclear, and by definition devastating.
By 1969, the Soviet Union’s belligerent Red Army had rolled over Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Central Asia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Romania, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Albania, Tuva, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, in roughly that order, some repeatedly. They helped subjugate North Korea and North Vietnam under communist rule, precipitating enormous loss of American life.
There is more. The American effort was all-in, involving tens of thousands of American engineers, scientists, aviation and life science leaders, a highly-publicized, high-risk, high-reward gambit. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy kicked it off, President Nixon concluded it. It cost American taxpayers 25.4 billion dollars in 1974, more than 150 billion dollars in today’s money. As early as 1966, 420,000 Americans were working for NASA, with more to follow.
The moon shot also cost American lives, more than most know. In 1967, before we got to the moon, we lost American heroes Gus Grissom (veteran of Mercury and Gemini), Ed White (Gemini veteran and first space walker), and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 “pad fire.” Before that, we lost others, including C.C. Williams, Charles Bassett and Theodore Freemen, American astronauts killed in plane crashes pre-flight.
On a more personal level, entire lives across America were re-centered on this moon shot, in every state and across virtually every demographic, with families uprooting and travelling incessantly to accommodate the massive national mission, all to realize this improbable American dream.
Personally, my father worked for NASA during Gemini and Apollo, just another technical support, his specialty setting up tracking stations around the world, from Guam to Australia, specifically helping to coordinate Earth-to-moon communications via S-Band radar, or high gain. His commitment was all-in, and nothing ever compared. Objectively, his commitment also eclipsed the family, and led to divorce. That was all part of the American mission, seen by many as necessarily all-consuming.
Then, there were the astronauts and families, 24 of whom wrestled a surreal experience – going to moon distance, or worrying a loved one out and back. Oddly enough, as captured by Life and Time magazines and Norman Rockwell’s famous space art, the entire American nation worried these men out and back, and worried with their families about safe return.
And as all Americans knew, these were living, breathing Americans on this life and death mission – not Europeans, Africans, Far Easterners, South Americans, Australians or any other nationality, much as they may have wished the Americans goodwill.
Life and death? Yes, Neil, Buzz and Mike Collins, who piloted the Command module when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon and planted that American flag, quietly agreed – on the numbers – they had a 2 in 3 chance of surviving the mission, and that was good enough – for America.
That is how they all felt, if their books and interviews are any guide. They did this for America, not for the United Nations, not for a ubiquitous, ill-defined ideal, not for the League of Nations. They volunteered to die, for America.
Yes, they thought that what they were doing was good for America, and what was good for America was good for all humanity, a technological defense of that hard-won Bill of Rights, risk taking with high purpose, freedom and democracy. They made sure NASA was a civilian agency, and that the first man to step from the lunar module on the moon of two was a civilian.
But all this was done by one nation, which boldly, openly, optimistically and without regrets, embraced the nearly impossible mission, turned what was improbable into victory. That was not done by the mass of humanity, as much as the entire world watched in awe – and they did watch in awe. That was done by Americans.
Indeed, that is why the United States Congress mandated, with bipartisan agreement, that the American flag would be planted on the moon. That is why unthinkable risks were embraced, by these Americans, in a sense by all Americans. That is why huge sums of American tax dollars were expended, willingly. That is why American lives were lost, for American ideals and for America – embodied by the American flag.
When the astronauts we lost and those who lived full lives were buried, with military honors – as all were military men – they were not laid to rest in foreign soil, not draped in a United Nations flag, and not celebrated as citizens of another country. They were in the presence of the American flag, as Neil and Buzz were on the moon.
Not to duly honor the uniquely American dream, will, actions, risks and losses that attended that first moon mission, and those which followed, seems either intentionally or ignorantly out of sync with truth and history.
That “We Came in Peace for All Mankind,” as the plaque Neil and Buzz left on the moon reads, is not to say that that world took these risks, or stood on the moon. It is to say that, wherever Americans act in the world, saving Europe in two world wars to triumphing over Soviet repression in the name of democracy, we do so for higher purposes.
But make no mistake, the “We” is “We, the People” of America, the two who walked were true-blue Americans, and the flag they planted was no mistake – it was the American Flag.