Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Reflections on a decade and an amazing week 50 years ago

Critic At Large

Triumph amid turmoil

At left, John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, speaks to Congress that the United States should commit to putting a man on the Moon “before this decade is out.” At right, American astronaut Buzz Aldrin is photographed by fellow traveler Neil Armstrong as he poses with a flag on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (NASA photos)


At the moment in 1961, missiles were pointed toward the sky on the lakefront of my hometown, Milwaukee, where today Summerfest entertains thousands.

A few years earlier, after Russia orbited a satellite called Sputnik, Americans heard in scolding and humbling ways about how backward we were in science – and how Russia could control Earth.

A few years prior to that, my classmates and I were shown how to huddle under our school desks to save ourselves in the event of a nuclear attack.

The moment in 1961 was unexpected by those of us who were fed fear and feelings of inadequacy.

The moment was created by John F. Kennedy.

It was May 25, 1961, speaking before Congress.

The moment arrived in five words… “before this decade is out.”

The phrase was in the middle of a sentence in which President Kennedy said a goal for America was to put a man on the moon.


That added “before this decade is out” added a “whoa” to the sentence and this thought: “Impossible.”

Russia was making the United States look silly with our crash-and-burn attempts to get into space.

Time and again, with much fanfare, Americans watched television coverage of American rockets exploding in such blazes of glory that they put Fourth of July fireworks to shame.

“… before this decade is out” sounded ridiculous.

And yet what happened 50 years ago this week proved what Kennedy said was possible.

An American became the first human to walk on the Moon.

Many people today probably realize the difficulty of the feat.

Dialing back to circumstances of the time, that the feat was accomplished “before this decade is out” is astounding.

There was more going on in that decade than a space race between the United States and Russia.

The Vietnam War took its toll on the American psyche, and the thousands of families who lost a loved one.

Three assassinations tore hearts and minds, with one prompting massive riots.

Divisions in American society were ugly and ripping.

Dark, threatening clouds hung over the land constantly.

And yet, in a wondrous distraction, step-by-step accomplishments strode toward that goal of “before this decade is out.”

President Kennedy had bravado, audacity, luck, luster and spunk.

His goal was a loolapalooza.

He would not live to see his statement bear fruit.

Some of us can play back the sequence of events during the week and feel the tension.

The world watched, too.

The launch from Cape Canaveral… smoke and fire and rising hopes.

The trip, arcing around the moon and waiting and waiting for Apollo 11 to transmit again.

The descent to the surface, ever so slowly, with grainy, black-and-white images of a hostile-looking landscape.

The wait for Neil Armstrong to descend from the space capsule to step foot on the moon, with his words garbled in transmission. We would later learn he said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Amid all the would-a, could-a, should-a’s that litter one’s hopes and expectations, that one step took place.

And it happened “before this decade is out.”


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