Neil Armstrong, the first man to put a space boot and plant a flag on the moon passed away a couple of weeks ago. Many around the world gave a mental nod in remembrance and respect, and rightly so.
Notable for not cashing in on his deserved fame, Armstrong was a modest man who achieved great things. When you realize that the team that put him on the moon did it on less computer grunt than you have in your smartphone, getting to the moon and back was a display of remarkable courage and ingenuity.
One of the media eulogies to Armstrong played part of a speech by President Kennedy made around the time of the space program. There was great passion and determination in the President’s voice that said we will go to the moon. And we will go there simply because we can. Nothing about technology advancement, commercial spinoffs or even the political capital that such an undertaking would generate. It was just a big, audacious goal.
Of course there was political mileage to be had in a time of cold war competition with the Soviets. It was also a time when the nascent power of the capitalist system that America believed was the only way forward, needed some iconic acts to further cement its worth.
Only President Kennedy sounded pure in his desire. We will go to the moon because we can. It was an empowering position, one that allowed Armstrong and the brave folk that followed to show their courage and tenacity to the world. And in Armstrong’s case made great by his manner and modesty.
I suspect that as a species we need this kind of thing. Our brains have evolved to handle complexity and we are always on the lookout for something big to fix. Only lately it has been more about drama that dreams.
What chance a modern day political leader making a Kennedy style speech? Miniscule I suspect. Just think, a president or prime minister leaving on the table the specific issues of the day to imagine something way beyond the mundane; something that inspires us to think, even for a moment, about more than ourselves. Hard isn’t it?
Maybe modern leaders do not understand that people like a collective ambition. We warm to big possibilities that take us further than our personal goals. We actually like the idea that there is something more than our own desire for a house with a white picket fence.
Or maybe the world has changed so much that audacious goals that have a collective outcome really are now out of reach. People found it easy enough to believe Kennedy. Today the hugeness of just keeping the global economy alive seems audacious as economies teeter and the global population grows. A leader with ideas not focused squarely on the drama receives short shrift.
But we need dreams too. And not just those that say we can fix global warming, end poverty and provide everyone with quality healthcare. We need audacity.
What is the next “because we can”?