Consider our nation's history and the strength we developed as we faced our greatest threats. George Washington's army was in no way comparable to the British forces he faced: his troops were untrained, unpaid, and out-manned. The British navy boasted 270 vessels, while the Continental navy had only twenty-seven. In April 1775, British warships laid siege on Boston Harbor and successfully took command of the city. But under General Washington's direction, during the following winter, Colonel Henry Knox and his men hauled fifty-nine heavy cannons by ox-drawn sleds three hundred miles from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, where they recently had been captured. Finally positioned on Dorchester Heights, a hill overlooking the harbor, the cannons threatened the annihilation of the British armada. The British navy withdrew and Boston remained in American hands. The victory was emblematic of the entire conflict: American ingenuity, derring-do, and faith in Providence helped win our improbable independence from the world's superpower.
I was born after the Second World War and can only imagine the confusion, incredulity, and fear that must have overwhelmed the nation when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Yet once again, the United States rose to the occasion. In Detroit, where my father was already working in the auto industry, factories that once made cars were quickly turned into assembly lines for military aircraft. Cars and planes aren't very similar, but in only a year, Detroit was making bombers and fighters. We ultimately lost 418,000 men and women in World War II. The financial costs were great as well. But we also became far stronger. Women joined the workforce — a trend that would wane, then wax again to our economic advantage. Our factories became the most productive in the world. Returning GIs went to college in what was the greatest expansion of higher education in history. And Americans recognized that while we constitute much of a continent, we are not an island — alone and isolated from the rest of the world.
I was in grade school when Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Mr. Garlick, my high-school science teacher, hung a model of the small satellite from the ceiling of our classroom as a reminder, he said, that America had fallen behind the Russians in science and technology. The future was up to us, he'd say, sounding a lot like my dad.
Three months after the Soviets' first successful satellite launch, we attempted to enter space. Our Vanguard rocket failed to develop enough power to lift off the launch pad. It toppled over on its side and exploded into flames. Over the next three years, NASA tried and failed to launch eleven more satellites. Despite our dismal record, President John F. Kennedy called for us to put a man on the moon. Young people all over the country grew enthusiastic about studying physics, engineering, and the space- sciences. We became a more technically proficient people. And we became the first nation on earth to put a man on the moon.