Editor’s Note: This analysis was excerpted from the May 26 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
In 1968, the pioneering Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission lifted America’s morale in a bitter year of political assassinations, race and anti-war riots, the fading presidency of Lyndon Johnson and a hardening Cold War.
On Wednesday, US astronauts are again due to lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in another landmark for US space exploration. Now, as then, the US is mired in gloom, amid a pandemic that will likely claim its 100,000th victim this week and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
The marvel of spaceflight and the courage of astronauts flying for the first time as part of NASA’s delayed private crew launch partnership might offer a moment of diversion. A return to American manned spaceflight after nine years will also ease US blushes over relying on Russia to ferry crew members to the International Space Station.
But it’s unlikely to resonate like the first trip around the moon, when astronaut William Anders snapped the iconic Earthrise photograph and gave humanity a view of itself from the threshold of another world.
For all its technological advances, the new mission will seem a step back. US astronauts are using a vehicle, the reusable SpaceX Falcon 9, that will look a lot like a 1960s rocket on the launchpad, following the retirement of the star-crossed space shuttle program.
What you need to know about coronavirus
While NASA’s ultimate goal is a trip to Mars, the US program in coming years — trips to and from the space station and then the moon — won’t be a giant leap for mankind. Steady progress will only underscore wonder for the men who left Earth on far more rickety craft, half a century ago.
Given the Covid emergency, NASA has asked crowds not to gather in Florida to watch Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley blast off. That’s not stopping President Donald Trump from making plans to jet down there anyway to bask in reflected patriotic glory — though a dodgy weather forecast may delay Wednesday’s launch.
Back on terra firma after the Apollo 8 odyssey, mission commander Frank Borman received a telegram reading, “You saved 1968.” If only the same were possible in 2020.