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The wild, improbable history of the phrase ‘If we can put a man on the Moon . . .’

How going to the Moon became the all-purpose yardstick not for accomplishment but for failure on Earth.

The wild, improbable history of the phrase ‘If we can put a man on the Moon . . .’
[Photo: Neil Armstrong/NASA]

This is the 24th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

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Going to the Moon fired the imaginations of Americans, whatever the support for the effort revealed by public opinion polls in the 1960s. One of the most revealing indicators of how appealing Americans found the quest is the quirky and charming history of the phrase, “If we can put a man on the Moon . . . .”

Almost immediately, we started using going to the Moon as a shorthand way of talking about what Americans were capable of in the transformative age of the 1960s.

Not even a year after President Kennedy’s speech calling for the Moon landing, the agriculture commissioner of Montana, Lowell Purdy, was angry about federal farm policy and the impact growing too much wheat was going to have on Montana farmers. Purdy invoked Kennedy’s Moon mission to criticize the president and his farm program. “Nothing is impossible in this age of miracles,” he said. “If we can put a man on the Moon, we surely are capable of seeing that our temporary surplus agricultural products are placed in many hungry stomachs of the world.”

Purdy was the first public official to be recorded using the phrase “If we can put a man on the Moon.” He said it on May 14, 1962. At that point the U.S. had managed to orbit a single man, John Glenn, alone in a tiny capsule, for three laps around the Earth. NASA hadn’t even figured out what a Moon rocket would look like.

But Purdy had perfectly captured his frustration with farm policy: If we can manage the logistics to fly to the Moon, surely we can figure out how to get surplus wheat, grown right here on planet Earth, to people who need it. The fact that we couldn’t yet go to the Moon didn’t spoil his metaphor.

The next use of the phrase came just three days later, at the opposite end of the country, in the St. Petersburg Times. Columnist Ann Waldron was writing about the immaculate homes presented in home design magazines, and how silly they look to anyone with a real family and real children. “I have to laugh when I look at those glorious, glossy color pictures in the fancy home magazines,” she wrote. One of Waldron’s fantasies for combining easy decor with realistic housekeeping turned out to be carpets made of paper that you could simply wad up and throw away. “If we can send a man to the moon,” she wrote, “why can’t we have paper rugs?” Waldron was using the idea of the Moon in a different way than Purdy: If we can create the technology to fly to the Moon, why can’t we do something down-to-Earth, like invent easy-to-clean carpets?

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A year later, a well-known hero of late 1950s America was testifying before Congress. Captain William R. Anderson was the skipper of the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, which had had been the first to sail underneath the North Pole in August 1958. Anderson had retired from the Navy and was asked by President Kennedy to lead an effort to create a domestic version of the Peace Corps, to put volunteers into the most impoverished parts of the United States. Testifying before a House subcommittee, Anderson said, “If we can send a man to the Moon, we can do something about the distress of people left to orbit helplessly in the vacuum of despair.” Congress didn’t fund Kennedy’s domestic Peace Corps, but that line from Anderson was widely quoted and reprinted.

Going to the Moon became the all-purpose yardstick not for accomplishment but for failure on Earth. A Massachusetts state representative complained in 1965, “We can send a man to the Moon but we can’t get rid of our garbage and rubbish.” After a mysterious and dramatic drop in the population of wild salmon in Idaho’s rivers in 1965, the state’s director of fish and game said, “If we can put a man on the Moon, we certainly can find out where the fish went.”

Going to the Moon was such an extraordinary leap that it created the space in which we surely ought to be able to perform every routine terrestrial task—even though we hadn’t gone to the Moon.

The phrase became a standard trope in the speeches of politicians. Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, used it in 1968 to attack Democrats’ “dovishness” on law enforcement while campaigning for Richard Nixon’s law-and-order presidential campaign: “We can send a man to the Moon, but we cannot guarantee his safety in walking across the street.” Nixon’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, used the phrase in his standard stump speech: “If we can put a man on the Moon, certainly we can afford to put man on his feet on Earth.”

Sometimes people used the trip to the Moon in a simple burst of frustration. South Carolina State Senator James Waddell was furious at the inability of a federal program to provide basic sanitation for poor people in his district. “We can send a man to the Moon,” he declared on the floor of the South Carolina Senate, “but we can’t build an outhouse.”

The wide use and wildfire spread of the phrase isn’t just a curiosity or a bit of faddish 1960s slang. It shows the sheer power of the idea, which planted itself in Americans’ psychology so quickly that “going to the Moon” became a way of thinking about the world. It became a fresh way of saying “anything is possible.” When people were frustrated with a lack of progress, when they were reaching for inspiration, they immediately thought, If we can put a man on the Moon . . . .

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The work necessary to go to the Moon was mostly invisible. But the phrase shows that Americans absorbed something critical about the journey: It was a stretch. Even for the country that won World War II, that invented the atom bomb, going to the Moon required us to harness every ounce of energy, imagination, and technological innovation at its disposal.

But the most revealing thing about the phrase is how Americans used it, from the beginning, as if we had already put a man on the Moon. In fact, the dozens of references from 1962 to the summer of 1969 make absolutely no rhetorical or rational sense, because we hadn’t actually shown that we could go to the Moon. Whether it’s being used flippantly by columnists or seriously by the vice president of the United States, the phrase is literally nonsensical. What is the point of comparing something we aren’t doing to something we haven’t done yet?

But no one ever makes that point. We knew we were going to make it. Embodied in the phrase—in the speed with which we adopted it and the way we used it—is the clear sense that Americans considered putting astronauts on the Moon to be simply the latest inspired form of manifest destiny. We had announced we were doing it, and it was as good as done. That attitude seems all the more remarkable as other things unraveled during the 60s—politics, cities, race relations, and our ability to figure out how to win in Vietnam.

One writer was wise to the “man on the Moon” construct in a way no one else seemed to be. Matt Weinstock wrote a daily column in the Los Angeles Times. In September 1967, he wrote a piece headlined “Found at Last—Flexible Cliché for All Occasions.”

“People wishing to show disdain for certain glaring flaws in our civilization appear to have settled on a cliché that could become the symbol of our era,” Weinstock wrote. He offered a handy list of his own comparisons, including, “We can put a man on the Moon but we can’t make hippies take a bath.”

Weinstock stayed on the “man on the Moon” beat. The frequency with which the expression was deployed clearly got under his skin.

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About two years later, in another column, he concluded the situation had become intolerable. The phrase was being used not to inspire, said Weinstock, but “in a nagging tone.” Writing in what was then by far the largest newspaper west of the Mississippi River, Weinstock issued a call to boycott use of the phrase, which he said had become “obnoxious.” Sadly, he added, “perhaps it’s already too late.”

Weinstock’s second column on the “If we can put a man on the Moon” phenomenon was published on June 2, 1969. The lunar module wouldn’t land in the Sea of Tranquility for another seven weeks. In less time than it had taken to go to the Moon, talking about going to the Moon had gone from potent metaphor to boycott-worthy platitude.

Now, in the 2010s, we use the phrase “If we can put a man on the Moon” as often as we did in the 1980s and 1990s. Does using it 50 years after the fact give it more punch—or more irony?

It retains its power, in part, for a new reason: The leap to the Moon seems to represent the opposite of the bureaucratic delays we’ve come to expect. It also retains its power because going to the Moon remains one of the hardest things human beings have ever tackled.

Way back in 1986, the New York Times joined the Los Angeles Times in calling for a halt to the phrase. “We can send a man to the Moon,” the Times editorialist wrote, “but we cannot stop public speakers from saying, ‘We can send a man to the Moon, but we cannot. . . .’ So awesome was Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind,” the Times continued, “that it has created the cliché standard for a whole generation.”

On January 1, 2018, the Wall Street Journal used it in what should, rightly, be its final use ever, about NASA’s sluggish efforts to return to the Moon. The headline of that Wall Street Journal story: “If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Man on the Moon?”

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One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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