Independence Day. I can’t wait.
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Explore This IssueMay 2021
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Generally, it’s not a holiday that carries a lot of meaning for me. Having grown up in New York and Boston, the smaller firework displays that take place in Baltimore fail to impress. Also, as a program director, the holiday falls in the middle of the new fellows’ first week of work, so in my house, it’s not much of a holiday. Every year, I watch my colleagues flee Baltimore’s July heat, as I stay behind to wanly welcome my trainees to their new home.
This year is different. I know this because Joe told me so.
On March 12, during his first primetime speech as U.S. president, Joe Biden announced, “By July the 4th, there’s a good chance that you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day. After this long hard year, that will make this Independence Day something truly special, where we not only mark our independence as a nation, but begin to mark our independence from the virus.”1
Biden’s staff was busy revising his words almost as they were leaving his mouth. White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified, “We’re talking about the American people being motivated and excited by the fact that … if they get vaccinated … there will be access to vaccines; they will be eligible. And if they take steps to get vaccinated, to continue to wear a mask, to continue to observe social distancing, then looking ahead to July 4th as an aspirational moment where people can plan small get-togethers in their backyard.” She further cautioned that they were not envisioning that we would be able to return to “large events with lots of people together.”2
President Biden’s words reminded me of another presidential speech. On Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy took the podium at Rice University to announce that “we choose to go to the moon”:3
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
One problem: At the time, he had no idea whether any of this was possible.
Roger Launius, the former chief historian for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said, as kindly as possible, “I think he thought it could happen.”4 NASA scientists had identified reaching the moon as a potential long-term goal; President Kennedy chose to interpret that as an enthusiastic yes.
I think the same may be true of President Biden’s words. His staff already seem worried that he may have overpromised, but that really doesn’t matter right now. Just the image of a summer barbecue or picnic with a few extra people is so enticing, I think he will be forgiven if he misses the mark.
But about that mark—people are already getting vaccinated at record rates. Why can’t the vaccinated take advantage of their new immunity now?