Reigniting the spirit of Earthrise

On Christmas Eve 50 years ago, the crew of Apollo 8 took a serendipitous and sublime photo of the Earth. It showed our planet seeming to rise over the limb of the moon, pitting ourtiny, fragile, blue and white orb against the infinite blackness of space. The photo had an impact on our world just as dramatic as the image itself, finding its way into major publications, giving the public a renewed sense of awe and pride in our planet, and even jumpstarting the environmental movement that led to President Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency.

More than anything else, the Earthrise image helped Americans in 1968 see that we could still do great things. It also shows why the upcoming Congress must commit to fully supporting a space program that ignites change and inspires millions.

Even decades after the Earthrise photo, NASA’s civil space missions continue to provide awe and wonder. In recent , the INSIGHT spacecraft successfully soft landed on Mars, Voyager 2 reached interstellar space and the International Space Station marked its 30th anniversary orbiting Earth. As we approach the new year, the New Horizons mission will be getting ready for our first encounter with a distant small world called Ultima Thule.

This work alone is incredible  — helping advance American science and technology  — and NASA’s example has spurred similar efforts in the private sector. Some of the wealthiest Americans, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, were moved by the Apollo program and are now trying to build on NASA’s achievements. They’re committing their own resources to incredible projects, including moving millions of people to live in space or even colonizing Mars.

Most encouraging of all, NASA’s work captured the imagination of so many kids and students. Enrollment in engineering programs has shot up by more than fifty percent over the last decade, as young Americans see science and technology as the keys to success. It’s a reminder that the biggest achievement of the Apollo program was not the demonstration of American capability or scientific strength  — it was the ability to encourage the next generation to move beyond the troubles of today to create a more exciting tomorrow.

That focus on the future has always fueled NASA and the support for its work. Our space program has been most successful when supported with consistent funding on a bipartisan basis — the potential achievements outweighing the political prejudice. This has paid off with a space agency that is without peer.

But today, growing partisanship, coupled with the looming threat of sequestration, places this steady support at risk. The latest government shutdown is just another example of this danger, forcing NASA to suspend most of its operations. We cannot allow division and rancor to stall this uniquely American source of inspiration. There are important issues facing our nation today, and we have many serious disagreements on politics and policy. But the question of properly funding NASA should not be one of them.

Congress and the President must act immediately to both end the shutdown and finalize the Fiscal Year 2019 budget. We have an opportunity to not just make another political punt, but to come together for a long-term agreement. It’s an opportunity to reject the division in our country and renew our dedication to space exploration that has united us for decades.

After all in 1968  — the year Apollo 8 took off  — was an unsettled time in American history. From the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, there was plenty to divide us.

But the Earthrise photo showed that by looking beyond short-term and short-sighted disagreements, we can achieve something both aspirational and inspirational; something that unites us as a nation, pushes us to be our better selves, and proves that  — even 50 years later — we can still inspire. We can still do great things.

Frank Slazer is the vice president for space systems and workforce policy at the Aerospace Industries Association, a leading advocacy organization for the aerospace and defense industry.