MERRITT ISLAND, FLORIDA
From a distance, the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building looks like a boxy garage festooned with a U.S. flag and a NASA logo. The vast Floridian emptiness surrounding it, and the mysteries of perspective, can trick you into thinking the VAB is not much bigger than a six-story office building—when in fact, it is the eighth largest building in the world by volume, capable of comfortably housing three-and-a-half Empire State buildings or the entire Roman Colosseum.
It was there that NASA assembled the Saturn rockets that made possible “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” as well as the Space Shuttle, which brought space travel several, breathtaking steps closer to flying on an airplane. And it is where a new generation of Americans might find the inspiration for another burst of industrial creativity and patriotism—provided we don’t throw it all away on rash foreign adventures and needless confrontation.
I took my son and daughter to the Kennedy Space Center last weekend as part of our annual Floridian summer retreat (yes, we come to the Sunshine State just when everyone else departs; don’t ask). Like most American boys—hell, like most boys everywhere—my Max has been space-obsessed since age 3 when he memorized the planets in the Solar System, the recently and unjustly demoted Pluto included. It’s fair to say that seeing the incomprehensibly gigantic Saturn V upfront registered as the coolest experience of his relatively short life so far.
But for me, the visit was about more than that. Keenly aware that my kids are first-generation Americans, I’ve been desperate to inculcate in them a love of their parents’ adopted homeland. Taking Max to hockey games at Madison Square Garden is, for me, more about the Anthem than the game itself. Alas, Rangers fans have a way of ruining those moments with their obscene shouts about the opposing team (though maybe that’s a lovably American reality, too).
At the Kennedy Space Center, I think, Max finally understood something of patriotism: in the figure of that awesome postwar figure, President John F. Kennedy. In the theater that forms the entrance to the Saturn V Center, a documentary recounts the Cold War backdrop to the space race; and how JFK, the center’s namesake, transformed Americans’ fear of Sputnik into a purposeful determination—into an active hope that finally beat the Soviets to the moon.
“We choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon, we choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
JFK’s 1962 address at Rice University has never failed to give me goosebumps. But this time, in that theater, with the Saturn V suspended from the ceiling just nearby and my Max held tightly in my arms, the words sent a big shiver down my spine. That part of the address (“…not because they are easy, but because they are hard”) appears in a boy’s biography of Neil Armstrong that Max often reads before bedtime. When he heard it spoken by JFK on film, he turned to me with a look of astonishment, and all I could do was nod as if to say: Yes, he really said that, calling this country to an amazing feat of discovery and conquest.
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And by God, I want Max and his sister to understand, we can do it again. That “it” must no doubt include, as my friend David Goldman insists, mastery of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the astonishing advances in manufacturing it promises. “It” must also include the close coordination between government, private enterprise, and labor that generated the achievements of the midcentury era (cooperation you can see excitingly portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s J. Robert Oppenheimer biopic). “It” must likewise involve a general reconsolidation at home and a renewal of Americans’ incredible capacity to build material stuff, rather than just apps and financial services. And “it” must finally involve honoring the American worker after decades of neglect and mistreatment by government and corporate leaders alike.
None of “it” is possible, I’m afraid if American leaders continue to rush into overly ideologized conflicts, based on the foolish idea that every corner of the planet must be subdued under a Pax Americana; or the suicidal confidence that we can humiliate nuclear enemies without ever paying a price for it. Here, too, the Kennedy Center’s venerable namesake offers a lesson. As Goldman has noted, “with most of his military advisers demanding actions that might have led to nuclear war, Kennedy instead reached a secret agreement with Soviet supreme leader Nikita Khrushchev” that averted apocalypse.
“We choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Avoiding the siren song of mindless hawkism and nuclear brinkmanship, and insisting on a mighty but peaceful industrial patriotism, may be among the hardest American challenges in this century.