Finn: Apollo Moon Landing Marked a ‘Giant Leap’ for Mankind — and Education. Moonshot for Kids Could Launch the Next Leap Forward

Astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. salutes the U.S. flag on the surface of the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission. (NASA/AFP/Getty Images)

The successful 1969 moon landing by the indomitable astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin evokes many proud memories for Americans old enough to remember that epic day, and it has taken on an aura of semi-mythic national accomplishment for the two-thirds of today’s citizens who had not yet been born. The hoopla surrounding its 50th anniversary is as appropriate as it is awesome.

It recalls John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 set the goal of a moon landing within the decade. It recalls Lyndon B. Johnson, who while still in the Senate had made himself master of congressional aerospace activity and who as president nurtured NASA’s Project Apollo. It recalls Richard Nixon, who, just months into his first term, was able to make the famous congratulatory phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin. (In Nixon’s telling, it was the “most historic phone call ever made from the White House.”) It recalls the brave astronauts who perished in 1967’s disastrous explosion at Cape Canaveral (called Cape Kennedy at the time) and the many others who lost their lives in connection with America’s ambitious space program. On the downside, it also recalls the ambiguous figure of Wernher Von Braun, a never-prosecuted Nazi war criminal who became America’s most prominent and zealous aerospace engineer during the 1950s and ’60s.

For educators and ed reformers, the successful moonshot has additional salience. The successful lunar landing was part of an ambitious space program that was inspired in part — and certainly accelerated — by Cold War anxieties that the Soviet Union was getting ahead of the U.S. in weaponry (missiles, bombs, etc.) and in the race for supremacy in outer space, not to mention the global prestige-and-propaganda advantages of doing impressive things first.

Though Cold War anxieties and competitiveness had started a decade earlier, the event that caused U.S. leaders and many citizens to focus on this contest was, of course, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in October 1957. That led Senators Johnson and Kennedy, among others, to accuse the Eisenhower administration of dawdling, of not taking seriously enough the urgency of revving up America’s technological prowess and not investing nearly enough in science, technology, and research and development more broadly.

In terms of education, that Sputnik-induced panic led President Dwight Eisenhower and congressional leaders to join forces to pass the National Defense Education Act, which arguably launched the modern era of federal aid to education, particularly at the K-12 level in realms other than vocational education. The act actually had multiple origins — a shortage of mathematicians, mounting interest in high school education, the need for more Americans to learn foreign languages — and included multiple provisions, most of them postsecondary. But it put down a big marker for STEM education as well as supplying a major boost to R&D across the board, education included.

Perhaps just as important, the experience of Sputnik, the space race and the passage of the act accustomed members of Congress to a more active federal role in science, education and technology, while giving direct experience and passionate involvement with these matters to JFK and LBJ, who proved pivotal in Washington’s many education and anti-poverty ventures that were to follow.

Kennedy launched his 1960 presidential campaign with a speech that promised to “rebuild the stature of American science and education.” Just months after his famed “moonshot” speech in 1961 came his proposals, ultimately achieved in somewhat altered form by Johnson, to boost federal aid to K-12 education, invest more in teacher preparation and more. Science and education were clearly linked in JFK’s head, and the decade that brought the successful lunar landing also brought both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act.

In short, the magnificent “step for man” whose 50th anniversary we are celebrating can and should be viewed as a companion to a giant step for education, albeit one that, like space exploration, has brought a host of accomplishment and collateral benefits as well as its share of false starts and disappointments. It has also enabled us to appropriate the term “moonshot” for other ambitious and potentially transformative ventures in many realms, again including education, such as the Moonshot for Kids competition on which we at the Fordham Institute and the Center for American Progress are currently embarked.

Through it, we seek to explore the rationale, potential and possible design of a revolutionary new investment in basic and applied education R&D that leads to successful innovation on behalf of America’s children. Our premise is that the U.S. will make significant gains in real education outcomes only if it develops and deploys bold new — sizable and scalable — approaches that build on the best ideas from the private, public and nonprofit sectors. We’ve identified seven education “moons” — six more than orbit the Earth, one fewer than Neptune has — to be landed upon, goals such as halving the number of fourth-graders who read “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and doubling the number of eighth-graders who can write an effective persuasive essay. And we’ve urged potential rocketeers to submit preliminary descriptions of their launch vehicle by Aug. 1.

We’ve asked them to imagine a billion-dollar budget for their venture — admittedly far less than went into the Apollo project, but far more than the chickenfeed that customarily gets scattered in the name of education R&D. We’re well aware of that field’s lackluster track record, both in federal hands and the Washington-driven semi-private version. But we’re also mindful of the huge breakthroughs that have come in so many fields when a clear goal is set and the requisite R&D are undertaken. America’s original moonshot is perhaps the premier example, but it’s far from the only one.

Just as, 60 years ago, this country was not discouraged by Soviet successes in space but rather motivated to do far better, so today we must not be deterred by too many flat assessment scores or depressed by persistent achievement gaps. We need the kind of resolve in education that once got us to the moon and has since taken American spacecraft far beyond.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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