Once America reached for the moon. Now it’s called to build a wall.

Watch the Apollo 11 mission land on the moon

This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.
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This montage video shows highlights from the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff in Florida to Neil Armstrong's famous step to the departure from the moon.

For those who remember watching man’s first landing on the moon, the countdown to the 50th anniversary of that July 20, 1969, event is also a count back.

Documentaries and other remembrances pull us into the past. We hear the voices of President Kennedy and Walter Cronkite, see the cars and fashions of the 1960s, people smoking at their desks, black and white TVs and clunky phones. And most who can remember know where they watched the ghostly images of Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the moon, a vision they observed in the company of astonished and pride-filled adults.

Taking in the images in PBS’s three-part documentary “Chasing The Moon” is to sense the excitement and the fear of undertaking what Kennedy called “the most hazardous and dangerous adventure on which man has ever embarked.” And that goal was achieved after an extraordinary mass effort and much trial and error by a virtually flawless Apollo 11 mission. Today, that technical wizardry in space seems matched by the marvel the mission achieved on Earth. It captured the imagination of the world and lifted people over borders and language with a common pride in the courage and ingenuity of our humanity.

Aldrin and Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon, but the moment wasn’t about a nation. It was about a species. In “Chasing the Moon” it is said of the landing: “It wasn’t about ‘We the Americans.’ It was ‘We the humans.’ It was one of us.” In going to the moon, we had gone beyond ourselves and had gone together.

This anniversary again stirs that pride, exuberance and human fellowship. But it also brings threads of disappointment and regret. For we now know what was not known then. We know what happened next. Nixon and Watergate. The bitter end of the Vietnam War. “Greed is good” on Wall Street. A revolt against taxes. 9/11. Afghanistan. Iraq. The Great Recession.

And now the incompetent, divisive and cruel rule of Donald Trump.

In 1962, Kennedy set the nation’s sights on the highest of goals: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

What great goals are before our nation now? Building a wall? Rather than channeling the “best of our energies,” Trump energizes our worst instincts. America will mark a moon adventure that inspired the world amid ICE raids to deport undocumented immigrants, children separated from their parents on the southern border, a gridlocked Congress, frayed relations with our allies and the blue planet so memorably seen suspended above the lunar horizon growing dangerously heated by climate change.

We shouldn’t be deceived by nostalgia. The year 1969 also had bitter divides by race, religion and income. But it’s fair to say that those who rose to Kennedy’s call had a faith in national purpose and public service that’s much weaker now.

Yet there are signs of change. A historic election looms and a more tolerant and less materialistic generation is rising. Perhaps this era of the nation turning inward and dividing against itself is nearing an end and a belief in what we can achieve together will return, just as the moon wanes and then grows full.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com