Jim Clash for Forbes
Who can forget the image of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos atop the medals stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, heads bowed with black-gloved fists in the air, protesting for civil rights? Or Grace Slick, with her counterculture sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll attitude, belting out “Somebody To Love” to the youth at Woodstock?
Then there’s the most iconic image of them all: Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, uttering his iconic “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The 1960s was the perfect amalgam of protest, cultural revolution and feats of extraordinary exploration. It was a decade like no other set up by the post-WWII prosperity of the 1950s. And Armstrong’s 11 words perhaps best sum up the collective baby-boomer enthusiasm at the time: The universe is limitless — and so are man’s possibilities.
Bill Anders’ iconic “Earthrise” photo in 1968 symbolized the endless possibilities of the baby-boomer generation. (Photo courtesy of NASA)
A half-century later, do aging boomers still feel that way? Some would argue yes (the internet), some no (the internet). But what is not in question is that we want to feel that way, as evidenced by nostalgia for the sweet spot of the 20th century.
Occupy Wall Street, the 1960s-like protest over income disparity, took the world by surprise a few years ago. And on television, the popular series “Mad Men” attempts to romanticize a “simpler” time.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is an attempt by wealthy private individuals to equal or break exploration records set by the government. Some of this activity is due to the fact that 50-year anniversaries of such achievements are upon us, and that makes a good media story.
But there is more to it, says Dick Bass, owner of the Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort and the first to climb the Seven Summits (highest peaks on each continent). “I know a lot of people who wake and say, ‘There’s got to be more.’ They want to win the self-respect that comes from doing something that really lays it on the line. To participate is to live, while spectators only exist.”
“Titanic” director James Cameron sure was living in 2012 when he equaled Don Walsh’s 1960 dive to the deepest point on Earth, seven miles below sea level in the Mariana Trench. That same year, Swiss daredevil Felix Baumgartner, backed by Red Bull Red Bull, broke Joe Kittinger’s 1960 parachute jump record of 102,800 feet. Baumgartner leapt from 128,100 feet, on the way down becoming the first parachutist to break the sound barrier.
With an even higher calling, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is one of only two private companies to carry cargo to the International Space Station. And Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Airways plans to inaugurate commercial operations next year, taking boomers into suborbital space – for $250,000 a ticket. A half-century ago, NASA sent its first astronauts into suborbital space.
Earlier exploration wasn’t all pie-in-the-sky altruism, though. “What people forget is that my flight was largely a part of the Cold War,” says Sen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1962. “The Soviets were claiming technical and research superiority. We look back now and say, ‘Oh, that was just a small incident,’ but in those days there were serious writings about the future of communism — whether it was going to be a dominant world factor.”
Bill Anders, the Apollo 8 astronaut who snapped the famous “Earthrise” photograph while orbiting the moon in 1968, echoes Glenn’s practical sentiments. “People think Apollo was a program of exploration and yet, as [my flight commander] Frank Borman was fond of saying, it was just another battle in the Cold War.”
“To people who weren’t born then, it is hard to imagine the U.S. and Soviet Union poised on the brink of mutual annihilation,” Anders continues, “and that things like the missile gap, who got into space first, whose education system was better were such strong political drivers of the 1950s. President [John] Kennedy was grasping at ideas to show the world that America wasn’t a second-rate country, that capitalism wasn’t a flawed theory. The moon happened to be the line Kennedy drew in the sand.”
Just as quickly as they came, though, the sixties ended – metaphorically on Dec. 6, 1969, at California’s Altamont Speedway. A Hell’s Angels member, while “protecting” the Rolling Stones at a rock concert, infamously stabbed to death an innocent female fan. The event was a dark counterpoint to the peace-love vibe of Woodstock just four months earlier.
Then a few years later, in the early 1970s, an entire country’s faith was shaken when President Richard Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace over the lengthy Watergate scandal. An era of creativity and protest had been replaced with a time of corruption and disillusionment.
History, of course, is cyclical. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just when is the next sixties, we boomers are dying (some literally) to know?