There are holidays and days of commemoration stretching from New Year’s to Independence Day to Christmas. A new one should be added to the calendar – informally rather than by government decree: Human Achievement Day — July 20th, the date in 1969 when human beings first landed on the Moon.
The most obvious benefit of living in society with others is that we can each specialize in the production of goods and services at which we are best and then trade with others, making us all prosperous. But in society we also have the opportunity to witness the achievements of others, which are constant reminders just how wonderful life can be. And among the greatest achievements in history, individuals using the three pounds of gray matter we each have in our heads figured out how to go to the Moon.
Think of the millions of parts and components and the engineering skills needed to make them function together in the Saturn V rocket, the Columbia Command module and the Eagle lunar lander that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of another world. Think of the applications of old knowledge and the discovery of new knowledge needed to create those incredible systems.
Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand understood the full moral meaning of these efforts when she wrote, “Think of what was required to achieve that mission: think of the unpitying effort; the merciless discipline; the courage; the responsibility of relying on one’s judgment; the days, nights and years of unswerving dedication to a goal; the tension of the unbroken maintenance of a full, clear mental focus; and the honesty.” It took the highest, sustained acts of virtue to create in reality what had only been dreamt of for millennia.
Ayn Rand‘s take on the landing was particularly instructive because of her novelist’s understanding of art, which, at its best, is a selective recreation of reality in light of the artist’s values. Thus Michelangelo’s David and Beethoven’s 9th portray humans as heroes. We go to art for emotional fuel and for the vision of the world as it can be and should be. In Apollo 11 she saw such a vision made manifest.
Concerning the pure exaltation from watching the launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Ayn Rand said that, “What we had seen in naked essentials – but in reality, not in a work of art – was the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness.” The mission “conveyed the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art – a play dramatizing a single theme: the efficacy of man’s mind.” And “The most inspiring aspect of Apollo 11’s flight was that it made such abstractions as rationality, knowledge, science perceivable in direct, immediate experience. That it involved a landing on another celestial body was like a dramatist’s emphasis on the dimensions of reason’s power.”
Of course the Moon landings were government-funded; if the private sector had led the way we still probably would have traveled to the Moon, only some years later. Today it is private entrepreneurs — the kind who have given us the personal computers, Internet and information revolution — who are turning their creativity to the final frontier. Burt Rutan, who won the private X-Prize by placing a man into space twice in a two-week period on the private, reusable SpaceShipOne, follows in the spirit of Apollo. The celebration of those flights in late 2004 showed how healthy human beings relish the display of efficacious minds.
So on July 20th let’s each reflect on our achievements — as individuals and as we work in concert with others. Let’s recognize that achievements of all sorts — epitomized by the Moon landings — are the essence and the expected of human life. Let’s rejoice on this day and commemorate the best within us with, as Ayn Rand would say, the total passion for the total heights!
Edward Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society and the editor and author of several books on politics and government policy.
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