This essay was first published in Newsday. Mitt Romney's mention of the late Neil Armstrong during the Republican National Convention on Thursday raised cherished images for Americans of a certain age. Those of us who remember the Apollo 11 days can still recall that excitement and sense of purpose. We're nostalgic for it now.
No one would look to the 1960s as a united decade in our history. But as Armstrong took those first steps on the moon in 1969, it became clear that a bold commitment by President John F. Kennedy had driven us forward.
Today, we are drifting through a prolonged economic valley and a divisive presidential race. Commitment to another bold goal would target our energies and revive our faith.
In his convention speech, Romney presented his version of shooting for the moon: creating 12 million new jobs. His five-point plan to reach that goal includes North American energy independence by 2020, school choice, rewritten trade agreements, a reduced deficit, and lower taxes and costs for small businesses.
It will be crucial for President Barack Obama to similarly paint his vision of the path forward during the Democratic National Convention, which opens this week.
It's hard to overestimate what a gamble Kennedy took, as a new president in May 1961, to promise a man on the moon "before this decade is out." At the time, many of the necessary metal alloys and technologies hadn't even been invented.
He intended to prove the United States' cultural and military superiority to the Soviet Union. Just a month earlier, the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had orbited the Earth. But the machismo of beating an opponent to conquer this so-called last frontier wasn't the only thing that was so important about Kennedy's promise. It was also having a clear goal that for many years inspired our imagination with a sense of national mission - and, after 1969, with a national identity.
We had done it first.
Where is our national identity today? U.S. astronauts must now hitch rides on Russian spacecraft to get to the International Space Station, and the United States may be outraced toward certain space goals by the Chinese.
But these developments should be cause for celebration. The United States has matured enough in space exploration to share frontiers with scientists from around the world. If globalization has its faults, then shared scientific advancement is among its bright promises.
Obama's goals for NASA are probably too far distant in time to offer much of a unifying purpose. He wants to send a crew to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 and have an astronaut on Mars by the 2040 decade. Far-off deadlines won't force the sort of compressed technological advancement we achieved from the original space race.
Among the side benefits of that era are the ability to screen for breast tumors, defibrillate hearts, track hurricanes and ocean fish, grow higher-yielding crops and pay at the gas pump with an ATM card. A nearer, more tangible goal is needed to propel similar innovation.
It's not enough for Americans to come together around a negative, as we did after the tragic Sept. 11 attacks or the hunt for Osama bin Laden. We need to agree on what we want to accomplish.
We could commit to making our public schools so good that we stem the flight to private. Building big infrastructure projects to create jobs. Reducing mortgages to reflect the current market and prevent foreclosure. Matching young people with careers that allow them to become productive and independent.
The list goes on, and we won't all agree what should be on it. But it's certain that the prize of the next presidency depends on how each candidate imagines the next footprint on the moon.