The moon landing and America’s need for a new “shared mission”

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and offers a chance to look back on how America came together for a bold journey of discovery at a time when the country felt like it was breaking apart.

It’s an anniversary that provides some valuable lessons grounded in the bitterly divided place that America finds itself today, and encourages us to ask if we have a shared mission that can pull us together.

A powerful narrator of the American journey to space is William Harris, the CEO of the Space Center Houston, the official visitors’ center at NASA. He shared his own personal story with us when GroundTruth gathered last month in Houston to launch our newest class of Report for America corps members into local newsrooms across the country.

The arc of Harris’s journey begins with ancestors who went from slavery to a fight for freedom, and it traces a line from a poor, rural background in Western Massachusetts to his current post. It is truly an extraordinary American story.

William T. Harris, President and CEO of Space Center Houston. (Photo by Space Center Houston)
William T. Harris, President and CEO of Space Center Houston. (Photo by Space Center Houston)

In 1969, Harris was in elementary school observing a divided America from afar — the grainy news footage of anti-war protests, the bitter struggles over civil rights, the collective trauma of the assassinations a year earlier of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, and corruption in the White House that was just starting to fester and that would eventually topple President Richard Nixon.

But when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon in July 1969, he watched the country come together as he, and all of America, held their breath for the tense countdown to take off and then the actual landing with Armstrong’s famous words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The following year, Harris’ 6th grade teacher in Greenfield, Mass. took him to the Science Museum in Boston, a 100-mile bus trip that changed the trajectory of his life, awakening a passion for science that led to a pursuit of many degrees from Boston University and Tufts University and a tour of service in the Peace Corps and eventually to the current leadership role he holds at NASA.

Harris’s story forces a sober reflection: How does the era of the Apollo moon landing compare to the deeply divided moment in America today? And do we as a country have any collective dream that might pull us together as a country?

Sadly, it seems rather than finding a way to come together as America did in 1969, these days America seems intent on pulling further apart. And it is painful to watch a time when the country and the world are marking the first time man stepped forth onto ground other than Earth’s, a height of human achievement, we seem today to be descending deeper into incivility in politics.

A low point was reached this week when President Trump hurled racist insults at Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat along with Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D- NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), all women of color, newly elected to Congress. In a tweet, Trump said these women should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Trump then presided over a rally in North Carolina where the crowd, referring to Omar, who is a refugee from war-torn Somalia and who received citizenship in the U.S., was jeering, “Send her back!”

At GroundTruth, we believe the rock-bottom depths of debate reached at such a divided time,  has much to do with the collapse of a healthy ecosystem for news that once gave us a shared set of facts and a basis for civic engagement. The well-documented decline of local news organizations has everything to do with the crisis in journalism, and the crisis in journalism has everything to do with the crisis in our democracy. Indeed, one recent study has found that the steady erosion of local news contributes to political polarization.

That’s why we launched Report for America, and why we are working to expand our program to place top, emerging journalists in host newsrooms where they can serve local communities that have gaps in local coverage. When we launched the 2019 class of Report for America corps members in June, we did our training in Houston, where NASA’s central command was located.

The 2019 Report for America corps members during their week of training in Houston.
The 2019 Report for America corps members during their week of training in Houston.

We saw some great symbolism in gathering in Houston, especially since our organization takes its name from the phrase ‘ground truth,’ which was coined by NASA. It refers to the calibration process in measuring the accuracy of satellites in space.  A reading or measurement of anything from temperature levels to barometric pressure that comes from the technology in the satellite is compared to a human reading on the ground. And NASA believes the human reading is more trustworthy than the technology and will recalibrate the satellite to reflect the human reading. It’s a process that we believe is a great metaphor for the age we live in. Bombarded by technology and digital information, we need to be sure we are getting the ‘human reading’ through on-the-ground journalism.

That’s why we invited NASA’s Harris to speak with our Report for America corps members, and if you need an uplifting story at a time when it feels the national discourse is so despicably low, Harris’ story can deliver. Harris advised the reporters to let “curiosity guide you,” encouraging them to “always follow your passion.” He spoke of his parents’ as active in charity and community service, and he encouraged our corps members to be of service through their reporting in local communities.

Growing up in Greenfield, a now-struggling factory town in rural Western Massachusetts, Harris had only two neighbors who lived within a mile of his home. His family carefully curated their history as descendants of Christopher Thompson, a free black man caring for his farm in Pelham who, once the Civil War broke out, joined the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry to fight for the Union. Harris reflected on the meaning of his family’s story at a gathering last year at the Amherst cemetery where Thompson is buried. Harris said he believes his ancestor fought for a better life for his descendants, that they were “fighting for an American dream.”

Gene Kranz, flight director for the Apollo 11 mission, cuts the ribbon of the newly restored Apollo Mission Control Center at the Space Center Houston on June 28, 2019. Harris (left of Kranz) led the restoration efforts. (Photo by Space Center Houston.)
Gene Kranz, flight director for the Apollo 11 mission, cuts the ribbon of the newly restored Apollo Mission Control Center at the Space Center Houston on June 28, 2019. Harris (left of Kranz, in a blue suit) led the restoration efforts. (Photo by Space Center Houston.)

He noted the difference between the generations of his family. Christopher was illiterate — an “X” marked his signature on many documents. And Harris has numerous advanced degrees, a resume filled with leadership roles and a unique chance now to share his passion and his journey as the chief executive for the nonprofit Space Center, which is Houston’s premier tourist attraction. And in this anniversary year, Harris said, the Space Center is receiving an unprecedented wave of visitors.

Reflecting on the memory of his ancestors at their grave site in 2017 and referencing the arc of his own life, Harris told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “I’d like to think their dreams came true… We’ve all achieved that American dream.”