Moon landing anniversary recalls the forgotten speed of freedom

The upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has reignited my childhood fascination with the mission and all the advances necessary to accomplish it. For a kid growing up in the ’60s, space exploration was a big deal: It interrupted school days, linked our imaginations with reality, and fueled the inspiration of a generation. All of this may seem a bit alien to the 70 percent of people today who were either too young to remember or not born yet.

It was a passionate time when we pulled together in an all-encompassing mission to beat the Russians and tackle the impossible. It was a different time. Astronauts were rock stars. Nerds in narrow ties and hornrims were center stage — and cool! The entire world marveled at our accomplishments. The United States was the undisputed world leader in everything. It was a magical time.

We live in different times today, but still interesting times. Our world moves at unprecedented speed, resulting in unmatched change. Increasing connectivity makes more possible, much faster than ever. That connectivity brings us together as never before possible and allows us to move resources and attention to where it’s needed. Our science, technology, and people make anything possible.

All of that change also comes with downside. People are connected, but isolated as the new connections also fuel divisions. Some of the same tools making the greatest technological advances possible can also be used as weapons against us. The rapid advances create knowledge silos as it becomes more and more difficult to absorb the vast volumes of information generated in any particular discipline. That same tsunami of information makes finding the truth too hard for many of us to track down. It’s an era of tremendous opportunity, held back by our inability to gain momentum for new, broad-based initiatives.

President Kennedy urged all of us to move Apollo forward at “the speed of freedom.” Looking at the space race as an example, the speed of freedom is a combination of American spirit and American capability. American spirit combined our inherent ability to dream of the impossible and then do what was necessary to make it real. American capability involves the combination of everyone’s efforts and resources to reach those impossible goals. We haven’t moved forward at the speed of freedom for a long time.

Apollo — and the space program leading up to Apollo — certainly moved at the speed of freedom. The nation went from not knowing how to successfully launch a rocket to landing on the moon in just eight years. The U.S. (and the entire free world?) aligned around a common, impossible goal and set to work. Free enterprise played a big role, freeing industry to make the things that the challenge required. It was the same economic power that won World War II. Yet, free enterprise wasn’t enough by itself to reach the moon.

The speed of freedom required all our resources — capitalism’s free enterprise, but also education, government, and our people. Our educational institutions harnessed the theories of interstellar physics into practical pathways and actions that charted a course to the moon. Their efforts also drove the advancement of integrated circuits’ capabilities and reliability. MIT bought massive quantities of these chips that no one else wanted to incorporate in their products, providing the volume needed to improve.

Government set a clear direction for the moon effort. It started by establishing civilian rather than military leadership for our space efforts, enabling a much broader approach. Our government leaders created a clear motivating vision for us to embrace. We were all behind the efforts to go to the moon and beat those “Russkis” to the surface. That vision aligned our energy and activity around a framework that could support new knowledge, learning, and the inevitable debate that occurs at the frontiers of the impossible. Finally, government bankrolled most of the process — not just the components, but also all the hard work of coordinating an unprecedented, complicated undertaking.

Finally, the speed of freedom required the American people. Individuals sewed the Apollo spacesuits and the on-board computers by hand! People provided transformational ideas like the lunar-orbit rendezvous — the concept creating two specialized space vehicles that halved the necessary boost capability. People also handled the mundane tasks critical to the mission. For example, NASA almost forgot to pack an American flag for the journey. A small team handled the details making all the iconic flag pictures possible. Only people with unmatched tenacity and attention to detail provided the talent required to move at the speed of freedom.

The speed of freedom is uniquely American. We have the natural and financial resources required to tackle the impossible. Our collective imagination and vision make it possible for us to set goals for the future far beyond the possible. That combination defines the American spirit, which is almost a genetic feature of our population.



We should be thriving in this new world, but somewhere along the way we let the naysayers slow us down. The Apollo program had them. The folks who said, “We can’t afford it,” or “It’s inefficient,” or “We should be using this money on social programs.” Does this sound familiar? The difference in the ’60s was that the power of the vision and challenge drove through these objections and put men on the moon.

Our times cry out for that speed of freedom to address our present challenges. The speed of current technology creates new advances every day. Humans are not keeping up with these advances. In fact, most of us are falling behind this progress, creating fear with deep new roots. We’re afraid of personal failure — keeping up with technology and maintaining a minimal value that allows us to support our families. We’re afraid of regressing — that our children will do worse than we did — both in terms of income and well-being. We also face existential fear — that some terrorist or tyrant will execute a scheme worthy of a sci-fi thriller. In the face of these fears, it’s difficult to recreate the speed of freedom in our times.

Myopic leadership also makes it difficult to move at the speed of freedom. It’s difficult to imagine business leaders jeopardizing quarterly earnings performance in order to support broader visions. It’s doubtful that educational leaders can consistently move beyond narrow academic pursuits to unlock more universal advances that help all of us. Surely, our government cannot move beyond any actions that don’t lead to victory in the next election. Finally, the rest of us are too busy finding our own narrow slice of security to participate in grand visions.

Reaching the speed of freedom requires all of us to move beyond those fears. Businesspeople making the quarterly numbers and driving a mission focused on more than just profit. Educators creating new core pathways that make it easier for all of us to seek the truth, rather than just mint a degree. Our government building the bridges to accomplish the great things we are called to do. The speed of freedom requires the rest of us to participate in all three arenas to build a better approach.

Few of us can trigger the next moonshot. Still, we can each make our own contribution to the speed of freedom in our corner of the world. We can dream big and reach beyond our present capabilities to create those new goals that seem impossible to accomplish. We can engage others who share our vision and help us reach even farther. Finally, we can find that internal strength and perseverance to make these difficult challenges come alive.

Together we can energize a new future. We can harness technology’s speed and power to create a better future for everyone. Connecting our resources and applying a heavy dose of American spirit will push the U.S. back to the forefront of important issues. We have the capability to create a future beyond the imagination — a future that pulls us together and brings everyone along.

Be sure to celebrate the speed of freedom as we remember Apollo 11 over the coming weeks. Then do your part to make the future better.

(If you like great stories about the space program in the ’60s, find a copy of One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman.)

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