COMMENTARY | Peggy Noonan published an eloquent tribute in the Wall Street Journal to Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, who recently died. She also delved into the larger implications of the death of an American hero.
“But what an era of dynamism, of breaking through, of pushing out, of daring. The space program gave us a forward-looking attitude, a sense we could do anything in any area. Especially if you were a kid, as I was, age 11, when Carpenter flew. What a gift it was to be young then-America blasting off, the Yankees or the Dodgers always winning. No one cared about government-what bliss-but to the extent we had one it seemed to work. Respectable people like Dwight Eisenhower were in charge, and then, in ’61, the glamour of the Kennedys. People were getting TVs. A whole new way to waste time! But also something else, our culture showing itself to itself, and it didn’t look so bad, especially, again, if you were young.
“But the point is the era. It was big, expansive, it was pushing against limits, even against gravity. Now we have shutdowns, ceilings, chained CPIs-it’s all limits. The head of NASA talks about greenhouse gases.”
The space program, especially in the 1960s, was the government program that worked. President Kennedy said we would put a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth and it was done. It was too bad that America abandoned that heroism just as the goal was reached. Someone should write a book about what might have been otherwise.
In any case, Noonan has a solution.
“I don’t know who the next American president is, but I know who the next great American president is-someone who remembers and can marshal and bring forth the mood of the old America: ‘Liftoff, we have liftoff.’ ‘We will do it.’ ‘Endless horizons.’ ‘Home of the brave.’ Great nations run on spirit. The next great one will know that.”
Noonan may not remember that during the 2012 campaign, Newt Gingrich tried something like that with his lunar base proposal. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, buried the idea in ridicule. Gingrich was uncharacteristically inarticulate in defending the idea. Romney went on to win the nomination and then lose the general election. There must be a lesson inherent in that.
The takeaway is that Noonan is certainly right about the next great president, but he or she had better be able to counter the cynical naysayers if making a proposal to push back the high frontier once again. That too might make a cool story.