I was just a little boy when Apollo 11 launched on its way to the moon, but I followed every detail.
The space program had my complete attention. I had just discovered Star Trek and I was completely certain that I would one day follow my heroes — real and fictitious — to the stars.
I watched the launch of Apollo 11 with the rest of the world. We all followed the flight nervously for four days. Late at night on July 20, 1969, I was glued to our television to watch Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon.
I was ecstatic. Next we would fly to Mars. Then to other planets. By the time I grew up, we would move on to conquer outer space. Big things were about to happen. And I would be a part of it.
I recently watched the documentary “Apollo 11,” which used never-before-seen film of the mission. The film was breathtaking to me. It made me really emotional. As I watched these engineers and technicians make this amazing achievement happen, I found myself thinking, “These are my people. These nerds are my tribe. At heart, I’m one of them.”
When I look at this monumental achievement through the lens of 2020 society, it’s immediately clear that these were almost exclusively men and they were almost exclusively white. Opportunities in engineering for women and for blacks were extremely limited compared to what was available to white men.
By the standards of 2020, the people of the space program — and all of the society of 1969 — were sexist and racist.
But nothing about that diminishes the monumental achievement that they were a part of. These were smart and competent people who achieved something that seems almost impossible to me, given the comparatively primitive equipment they were using.
I saw a few black faces and a few women during the documentary, but they were mostly noteworthy for how few they were. Although there’s been an effort fairly recently to document the contributions of bright people in the program who were not white men — the wonderful movie, “Hidden Figures” comes to mind — the truth is that the vast majority of the engineers, technicians and astronauts were white men.
Period. End of story. That’s just the way it happened.
We all know that there were women and there were non-white men — black, Latino, Asian — who would have been part of the effort if they had been given access to education and opportunities at the time. We all know that it was wrong that those people were denied those opportunities. Not only were they diminished, but the society was denied the benefits of their abilities.
Racism and sexism are always terrible things to anyone who cares about fairness and opportunity and competence.
We are living in a period when a lot of people are eager to destroy any honor given to those from the past who don’t share our modern sensibilities about race and sex. By the standards that these reckless people are advancing, we will soon be tearing down the achievements of everybody who believed things that we consider monstrous.
But this is a dangerous standard for evaluating the past. It’s a dangerous standard to use in evaluating the people who achieved things for which they were once honored. By this reckless standard, nobody had any value unless he or she believed what a “woke” person in 2020 believes.
That standard is insane.
I don’t believe in slavishly honoring all those who were honored by their contemporaries or by history. For instance, I believe Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant. He shut down newspapers which criticized him. He jailed journalists who disagreed with him. He threatened to jail Supreme Court justices if they ruled against him.
And Lincoln was openly a white supremacist. He didn’t love slavery, but he believed whites were superior to blacks. Read what he said during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. If he had lived, his intention had been to send freed black slaves to Africa.
These weren’t the things you were taught about him in your hagiographic history classes, but they’re all true. Lincoln was a fairly typical self-interested politician who pursued power and had no interest in the welfare of slaves.
But he was honored by his contemporaries and he was honored by succeeding generations. I don’t want to tear down the Lincoln Memorial. I’d just like some more honest discussion about that era and who Lincoln was — and what really happened. And why.
I feel the same about the others who some people are so eager to desecrate right now. Whether it’s Christopher Columbus or Woodrow Wilson or Robert E. Lee, their legacies are complicated. They were honored by people of the past for specific reasons — likely not the ones that you’re so eager to assign to them today.
The people of the past were racist and sexist by our standards. Gay people were being imprisoned not that long ago. Most of the people of the past agreed with things that you and I would find barbaric. We’ve known this all along.
It’s madness to suddenly re-write history and to destroy the cultural legacy of a society’s past simply because you want to bring everything into line with your current political or social beliefs. If this is the attitude you adopt, you will never understand how society evolved — and you’ll never comprehend the ways in which it’s going to evolve from where we are right now.
Or do you assume that your beliefs are perfect and that nobody will ever decide in a hundred years that you were wrong about something?
The past needs to be confronted in parts, honored in parts, and tolerated in parts. The men and women of the past weren’t perfect, but they were the ones who had to live through the messy and dangerous days which are slowly giving all of us a better world.
And that’s the real lesson.
If you look at the launch control rooms of a modern rocket launch, you’ll see men and women of all sorts of ethnicities. If you’re smart and competent, you can find an opportunity today. We’re not perfect, but we’ve come a long way in just 50 years.
Watch “Apollo 11” and feel the excitement of a time when we all believed — just for a moment — that we were united in a greater mission to reach for the stars.
It’s a great thing that we’ve opened more opportunities for more people to be part of it, but it’s still appropriate to honor those imperfect people — mostly white men — who made history with that “giant leap for mankind.”