A Matter of Priorities...
A MATTER OF PRIORITIES
Are you old enough to remember where you were on the evening of 20 July in 1969?
I am and I do. I was fifteen years old at the time. It was one of those rare summer nights when I was inside, with my parents, rather than outside gallivanting with my friends. And for good reason.
My family, like millions of others across America and no doubt all across the world, was huddled around our color TV set, breathlessly awaiting what would be the greatest event in modern history...man’s first steps upon our moon.
Several of our neighbors, those who did not have color TV’s, were in our living room too. No one wanted to miss what was being broadcast on every channel and every TV screen in almost every neighborhood in America.
The air was thick with excitement and nervous tension. We all sat on the edge of our seats...waiting.
Then at exactly four minutes before eleven, a white-suited astronaut by the name of Neil Armstrong stepped from his spacecraft onto the surface of the moon, uttering those immortal words...
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
There is somewhat of a controversy over what Armstrong actually said. Many people claim he said ‘one small step for man’ but the line he and his wife had come up with and he’d practiced a hundred times before the launch, was ‘one small step for a man.’ Careful scrutiny of the grainy broadcast remains inconclusive. Regardless, these words strung together ever so eloquently have created perhaps the most important sentence ever uttered by a human being.
An American man was on the moon! We all jumped to our feet, celebrating America’s prowess...our greatest achievement. We were feeling exceptionally proud and patriotic. We’d done it! We’d won the race to the moon. We beat the damn Russians!
As we were celebrating in our living rooms however, on the other side of the world...in a tiny and little-known place called Biafra, something entirely different was taking place. A civil war there was being waged and millions and millions of people were dying. But they were not dying from the bullets being fired or the bombs being dropped. They were dying in a much more heinous way...of starvation.
If you are old enough, you no doubt recall the news headlines about the Biafran refugees and the starving masses of innocent women and children. But I wonder...do you remember the details? Probably not! Probably not as well as you remember the moon landing. I am almost sure of that.
The fierce and heavily armed Nigerian military was punishing the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria for their decision to secede from the tiny African nation. The government literally closed off all roads in and out of the region, shutting off food, medicine, vital supplies and humanitarian aid. Slowly they starved their enemy to death. Before it was over, two million had died.
And at the same time that the Lunar Excursion Module was tooling across the craters and surface of the moon, elsewhere in Africa, in places like Niger and Chad and Ethiopia, a drought was killing even more innocent people.
The world had turned its back on these events, opting instead to pay attention to a Cold War that was raging between the world’s two superpowers.
I think it is safe to say there were few if any TV sets tuned to the moon landing in those African countries. People there had absolutely no idea who Neil Armstrong was or what the Apollo project entailed. Had they known, I am sure it would not have mattered a whit to any of them.
Getting to the moon was indeed a phenomenal achievement. I am not taking anything away from it. It signaled hope to a troubled world! Belief that we human beings could achieve great things. And great things did come from that achievement...things that today make our day-to-day lives so much easier.
But from another perspective, it also signaled the very worst about the human race. Perhaps a bit of history is in order before I continue down this path.
Eight years before America landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong stepped out onto its surface leaving that iconic footprint in the dust, the Russians had launched a cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the earth. It was the first ever successful manned space flight.
You may not remember if you are not as old as I am, but that moment shamed the people of the United States. We’d lost to the Reds and that was something unimaginable. The land of the free and the home of the brave would not, could not and must not EVER admit defeat to the oppressive communist regime of the USSR! It was unacceptable and unheard of.
This was at the time of the Cold War and once Yuri Gagarin returned from space to a Soviet hero’s welcome...well, let’s just say things changed in America. The United States, through its newly formed space agency NASA, became hell-bent on beating the Russians to the moon.
It became a national priority and caused the US to redouble its efforts, spending untold amounts of money and setting aside humanitarian interests for those of advancing technology. I see it as the singular moment in time when my country lost its way.
Why? What was so important about being first to the moon?
I will tell you why and what. The race to the moon was nothing more than a race for bragging rights. It was a competition to show which nation had the greatest know-how...which system, capitalism or communism, was best. We had to prove to the world that WE had the most advanced technology and the more clever of scientists.
I remember when I was in college, a report to the House Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight and another to the Committee on Science and Astronautics were issued. They became the kindling that fueled the controversy and arguing between the Hawks and the Doves in America.
The report stated that the Apollo Moon Program cost in excess of $25.4 billion by the time it ended in December of 1972. In today’s dollars, that equates to over $130 billion.
There were other studies being conducted at the same time...by the UN and Christian relief agencies around the world. In 1974, it was estimated that by spending $1 billion each year for the next 25 years, world hunger, disease and famine could be virtually eliminated.
My country spent that much just to go to the moon. And once it was accomplished, we NEVER went back. And so perhaps I need to revisit my question...why?
Now I am not saying that landing on the moon was not an epic human achievement and that it did not better and advance a portion of our civilization, but I find it sad and somewhat embarrassing to think that it was taking place at a time when millions and millions of innocent people of the same civilization were suffering and dying of disease, famine, starvation and genocide.
We may not have been able to prevent it in its entirety, but can you imagine how much different the world might be today had only our priorities been different fifty years ago? I think if we truly knew what it felt like to starve, we would never again waste another morsel of food!
If this is not FOOD FOR THOUGHT, I don’t know what is.