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There’s a reason why any proposed ambitious national undertaking is compared to the Apollo 11 moon mission. The Apollo landing, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrate on July 20, is the gold standard for collective achievement.

After all, less than seven decades after the American Wright Brothers proved that heavier-than-air aviation was even possible, other Americans had transcended the atmosphere altogether, traveling through outer space to the moon and back. Not bad!

That’s why today, the vision of curing cancer is referred to as a “moon shot,” as are ambitious goals in the various realms of science, environment, and even business. As Aristotle said, we most admire that which is hard to do, and so of course the moon shot is admired—and emulated.

Yet if the U.S. accomplishment in 1969 was a watershed moment in human history, it was also a testament to the ability of Americans to organize to accomplish a great goal. As authors Robert Stone and Alan Andres have noted in their new book, Chasing the Moon: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America into the Space Age:

The American effort to get to the moon was the largest peacetime government initiative in the nation’s history. At its peak in the mid-1960s, nearly two percent of the American workforce was engaged in the effort to some degree. It employed more than 400,000 individuals, most of them working for 20,000 different private companies and 200 universities.

The space program was not just about the guts and grit of astronauts with “the right stuff,” nor about the brilliance of the engineers who designed the spacecraft. It was also about the financial and organizational ability of government leaders, corporate executives, and white- and blue-collar workers—all teaming up to get the job done.

The roots of this powerful teamwork go back to World War II. The Can Do spirit that animated America in the 1940s enabled Uncle Sam to build his mighty Arsenal of Democracy, which included the construction of more than 300,000 airplanes. Among these aircraft were bombers capable of dropping 1.5 million tons of ordnance, to cite just one war-winning metric. And of course, two of those bombs were atomic bombs, further reminding us of just how much we can get done when we throw ourselves into an urgent mission.

As a shining example of World War II’s Arsenal of Democracy, Ford’s Willow Run plant workers put the finishing touches on the B-24 Liberator bombers coming off the assembly lines on March 3, 1943. (AP Photo)

In fact, as this author has argued here at Breitbart News, the U.S. scientific and industrial achievement in World War II, stupendous as it was, would not have been possible unless a giant industrial base had already been in place before the fighting started. In fact, the origins of our industrial muscle reach back to Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, those far-seeing champions of tariffs and internal improvements—what became known as American System.

We can further add that nationwide economic development, as well as overall American strength and greatness, was the conscious goal of Hamilton and Clay; in the 20th century, leaders acting in their tradition sought to make sure that NASA spending was spread around, not just clustered in the richer Northeast. Thus it was that NASA rockets were built in Alabama, stocked with avionics from California, launched from Florida, and mission-controlled from Texas. This is how nations get built—they do things as a team.

Returning to the mid-20th century, we can note that the success of the homefront in providing superior weapons for the warfront demonstrated that a new kind of military system had emerged, based on Big Science. That is, government, industry, and the academy were all combining to crank out lethally effective inventions.

In that new spirit of marshaling the national mojo, on July 25, 1945, Vannevar Bush, head of R&D for the Pentagon during the war, submitted a reportScience the Endless Frontier, to President Harry Truman and to the nation. In that document, Bush outlined a postwar plan for harnessing scientific potential on behalf of national missions, including military strength, economic growth, and medical advances:

The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.

Bush’s report was well received, as most policymakers back then, as well as most Americans, could see the value of coordinated efforts to solve problems. In fact, breakthroughs could, and did, more than pay back their cost; the polio vaccine, for example, delivered immense humanitarian benefits, and yet in terms of public-health cost-savings, it also proved to be one of the best investments ever.

In that era, another national undertaking was imposed on us: the need to wage, and to win, the Cold War. Once again, Big Science put its shoulder to the wheel, and America innovated anew; rocketry, the transistor, and the Internet were just three of the new boons to our security—and to our economy.

Indeed, the Can Do ethos was still so strong that, in 1960, Time magazine named“American Scientists” as its “Men of the Year.”

So it was in this forward-looking political and technological context that President John F. Kennedy, himself a World War Two vet, made his bold declaration on the moon shot. As he told Congress on May 25, 1961:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.


President John F. Kennedy speaks before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, urging congressional approval of funding for the space program. (AP Photo)

As the Seabees in JFK’s beloved Navy said as their motto, “The difficult we do now, the impossible takes a little longer.” Thus the 35th president gave the nation eight-and-a-half years to complete the moon mission—and as we know, NASA beat the deadline by six months.

The following year, 1962, Kennedy elaborated on the national goal. We should go to the moon, he told an audience at Rice University, “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” That is, we would extend Big Science up, way up, and so “become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”

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