Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy, speaking before a joint session of Congress, said, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Love that “the.”
Kennedy (or his speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen, who died last year) could have left it out.
Earth, alone, article-less, is what things return to. You throw a ball in the air, and it returns to earth. You jump out of an airplane and open your parachute, and you return to earth. But that earth, with a lowercase “e,” suggests merely what we walk on. It’s the stuff, gravitationally speaking, that grounds us.
You can also return to Earth, with an uppercase “E.” That “Earth” is a bit more poetic than “earth”; it suggests a planet. But absent an article, it’s a planet that feels familiar. It’s our home—our landscape, our sky and earth. Goes without saying.
But “the” Earth? Why a definite article? Clearly not to distinguish the Earth from an Earth—from one of those other Earths out there. No, I suspect the purpose of that word was to distance us, however subtly, from our preconceptions.
Kennedy wasn’t just setting in motion a space equivalent of the Manhattan Project, a military and scientific demonstration of might in the Cold War. He was putting the voyage into a cosmic perspective. From the point of view of someone on the moon, Earth isn’t just something to return to. It’s that thing over there, big and blue and rising over the horizon. It is a feature in the lunar landscape—a landscape that comes with its own sky and a pockmarked surface.
With one word, barely a breath, a syllable you could harmlessly omit following all the rhetoric—the conviction (“I believe”), the patriotism (“this nation”), the call to action (“should commit itself”), the appeal to glory (“achieving the goal”), the urgency (“before this decade is out”), the audacity (“landing a man on the moon”), the hint of fear, or courage, or grace (“returning him safely”)—Kennedy ungrounded us. He put us in our place, and it was a different place from where we’d been at the beginning of the sentence. It was the place we’d be before the decade was out.
“The”: one small word for a man, one giant context for mankind.