Apollo-11-US-flag-on-moon-001The Pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Arch de Triumph – these spectacular structures are not only testaments to human creativity, productivity, and ingenuity, but are symbols of a civilization at its height. Great nations accomplish great things, because they are capable of mobilizing the inordinate amounts of resources, manpower, and brainpower required to pull off such feats. Yet only the richest, most prosperous, most secure, most advanced, or most powerful nations are in a position to produce such wonders. Those that have will forever be remembered as humanity’s defining civilizations; the era of their accomplishments as one of humanity’s golden ages.

12 pairs of human footsteps are imprinted on the surface of the Moon. An American flag hangs bravely on its barren terrain, another testament to human creativity, productivity, and ingenuity. The Apollo program which took humans to the Moon was a modern wonder, one which perhaps dwarfs all of the other great accomplishments of mankind. However, unlike those spectacular standing structures, which will eventually crumble to dust, the American footprints on the Moon will remain indefinitely. The knowledge and expertise needed to send humans on a week-long voyage through space to walk upon another world, and to bring them back safely, had no parallels. The Moon landings are perhaps humanity’s proudest achievement.

Neil Armstrong and the Apollo Program can be seen as symbols of our civilization at or approaching its height of power. They represent the apex of American ability. The Moon landings required our country’s largest mobilization of resources since the construction of the intercontinental railroad. Other than World War Two, the Apollo Program was by far our largest mobilization of manpower and brainpower. The organizational, financial, and technical challenges facing the program were so staggering, only the most powerful country on Earth could pull them off. We did.

The Apollo Program, it seems, came at a time when America and Americans cared about being on top. It can at a time when we wanted to make history, to define humanity’s future. It came a time when we thought we could do something extraordinary, something no country had ever done before. It was a time when Americans thought they were at the height of their power, and wanted to demonstrate it. We landed men on the Moon with less technology than can be found in modern-day cell phones. We landed men on the Moon in the midst of violence in Vietnam and violence on college campuses, amongst the Kennedy assassination and Civil Rights struggle. Despite all of the challenges around us, we rose to something greater. The United States of America forever secured a defining position in human history for this accomplishment, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Or ever since. 42 years that have passed since the last human walked atop the Moon. It’s difficult to say that the United States has been on the decline since then. Our economy has only grown since the Moon landings, and is still the strongest in the world. It would take another two decades after our accomplishment until we were the unrivaled global superpower, a position we still hold onto today, even if only tenuously. American engineering, technology, and culture still dominate the world, perhaps even more so than in the 1960s and early 1970s. Yet clearly, something has changed. We are no longer the nation that produced wonders, that accomplished humanity’s greatest feats. If we were, there wouldn’t only be 12 pairs of footsteps on the Moon. We would’ve gone back.

Americans today, it seems, no longer think of themselves as on top… or at least, are no longer acting like it. Where can the willpower that once drove us to think the unthinkable, to do the undoable, be found today? Where is that pride in our ability and our determination to utilize it? Where are those individuals, the likes of John F. Kennedy, Wernher von Braun, and Neil Armstrong, who recognize our privileged position and  are driving forces behind accomplishing something great?

The Egyptians are remembered for the Pyramids, the Qin Chinese for their Great Wall.  These structures mark the height of these civilizations power. They represent their golden age. Thousands of years from now, people will remember the United States for sending the humans to walk on another world for the first time.  Were the 1960s and the early 1970s our height of power? Was that our golden age? Undoubtedly, it was a remarkable period for our country, but it doesn’t have to be the only.  America is still a great country; indeed, it is still the most powerful country in the world. If we find the will, we are still in the position to accomplish even greater things.

It is inevitable that the 12 pairs of footsteps on the Moon will be joined by others. It is inevitable that more flags will fly on the Moon, and that some will fly on the dusty surface of Mars. America – if it truly hasn’t yet reached its height of power, if it hasn’t yet entered its decline, if the Moon landings were only harbingers of things to come -will be the nation to fly it.