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More Small Steps and Giant Leaps… on Earth:

It felt like there just had to be something cosmic about the timing of the 40th anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the moon and the leaving of Walter Cronkite from his earthly coil. Cronkite was consistently exuberant about the space program, and described our reaching for the moon as “one of our last great adventures.” Somewhere in this last thought was the connection I was seeking.

For a certain generation, John F. Kennedy’s promise to reach the surface of the moon before the end of the 1960’s represented a singular example of humanity striving. There were the romantic and heroic dimensions of space travel, to be sure. But I’ve always felt there was a larger component, one involving the sense that America could do anything therefore, why not do the most impossible or challenging thing? For a certain generation, there can be a sense that we’ve lost that gumption.

YouTube images verified my recollection of Walter Cronkite learning that “the Eagle has landed” on the moon. He just grinned, removed his trademark eyeglasses, and then began rubbing his hands together like a little kid anticipating a delicious cheeseburger. Though he was temporarily speechless in the enormity of the moment, you could easily read Cronkite’s thoughts: “Oh, boy, this is tasty!”

And of course, it was. It’s a safe bet that many haven’t felt that kind of excitement about being alive in a specific era until recently, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And yet, not to take anything from that delicious moment, the moon landing was something else altogether.

Just on the romantic angle alone, we had “lassoed the moon” much as Donna Reed promised Jimmy Stewart he would someday in the film It’s a Wonderful Life. We were bogged down in Vietnam, yet the moon landing proved we were still capable of conquest. And there was something about the scope of the ambition involved that was deeply intoxicating. It was in space, for crying out loud. It was the United States in outer space.

Yet I have another very specific recollection of the summer evening when America was poised at their TV sets to vicariously join the men of Apollo 11. I was with some teen friends, and it was around dinnertime in the Midwest. I pointed out that we all needed to head for home so that we wouldn’t miss mankind’s first steps on the moon. My Cronkite-like hungry boy enthusiasm was met with blank faces, followed by some mumbling that the moon thing wasn’t that big a deal and maybe a few of them would go swimming instead. I felt as though I’d been punched. It didn’t make any sense, missing this moment.

After having spent a good part of my life blessed with work that involves motivated people working toward imaginative ends by creative means, I now understand that not every single person “gets” the notion of striving collectively to achieve a worthy goal. Back on that July 1969 evening, there were a lot of households where adults in the room were grumbling about the cost of the space program and later questioning whether the images from the moon were the real McCoy. Too bad, because they missed riding on a sweet wave that doesn’t come along that often in life.

Can the collective gusto for achievement that America displayed in 1969 find a way of manifesting and investing itself in 2009? I think so, although the landscapes of our challenges are different now. To put it bluntly, realizing affordable health care for all Americans sounds pretty dull next to Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon. Goodbye nerdy scientists, hello policy wonks. But health care is exactly the kind of conquest we need to get jiggy with right now.

In 1969 the knowledge that we could, when pressed, conquer space… mattered. Now the small steps becoming giant leaps for mankind are going to be about pulling America from the ravenous maw of corporate domination, and back onto an improved firmament of democracy. If you buy into my metaphors, then quality public education is another part of that firmament. And it’s my amateur speculation that restoring education and equalizing healthcare will be giant leaps toward restoring America’s middle class.

But we’ll need something akin to Walter Cronkite’s appetite for big achievements to keep us in the game on these things, which we might call “adventures in economic infrastructure.” This time there will be no fiery rockets and breathtaking footage from space to keep us motivated. We’ll have only our gumption to make things better and more right for generations to come, under the guidance of astronaut Obama. For 11 years Walter Cronkite hosted a Sunday science and technology show that was simply titled The 20th Century. Back then, it would fill a kid with awe to see some of what was coming. As 21st century adults we need to find that same drama in the challenges we must take on now, no matter how earthbound those challenges might be.

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