Random ruminations on a sort of lunacy
I can just see myself, four decades younger, in what I fancy as my Greek God Period (actually I was lying on the floor on one of those 1960s too-shag carpets with a sore back from working on the lawn and two young daughters jumping on my rapidly-fading “ripped abs”). There was “uncle” Walter Cronkite in black and white, interspersed with shots of the geeks of the day—engineers with white short-sleeved shirts, horn-rimmed glasses, and brush-cuts saying things like “telemetry, GO; bio-systems, GO, ignition systems, GO” while smoking cigars and pipes—counting down for what is, without question, one of the greatest scientific and technological achievements before the iPhone. I still have the moldering New York Times with the biggest font ever: Men Walk on Moon. In real time it was momentous; although there are still people who claim Apollo 11 was all done on a sound stage in Burbank (starring the second gunman from the “grassy knoll,” D.B. Cooper, and the remaining alien from Roswell).
Much press has been given to the forty-year anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong put first foot on the moon, leaving the lasting imprint of a rather banal utterance. But what else was left of that great scientific and technological effort? Samples were collected, golf alls were struck and some excursions were taken in the lunar rover. Then, eight less visually compelling and lower-rating missions later, it all came to a halt. Holy cow! Then, been there, done that. 2001, A Space Odyssey, which came out the year before, was as visually compelling, took our imaginations on a longer ride, and has gotten more air time since.
Not quite, but somewhere in between. Not to put down the daring and drama of the moon landing, the riveting idea that the astronauts, even though mostly passengers by this time, added the thought that we could have ended up watching the slow deaths of two or three human beings. But the answer to why the moon landings came to such a sudden end probably owes to other factors. We had overcome our Sputnik-o-phobia and beat the Russkies to the moon. OK, done that. We easily become bored and we already take Velcro and GPS for granted. Then there were the oil crisis recessions of the 1970 and the inflations from our adventure in Vietnam. Moreover we should not discount the accession of the spectacularly unimaginative Republicans, who felt that rich people should be getting all that space program money, and their national hegemony over the next three decades. Finally, we should not overlook the great rise in religiosity (consonant with that of a Republican base). Why waste all that money on a space program when it’s right there in scripture— at the Rapture Jesus will be coming down here to get us for the bit “lift off” to heaven.
Nevertheless, there was, the inauguration of the International Space Station, sort of a platform for scientific experiments—and maybe, with the residency of several female astronauts, some experimentation with new zero-gravity “positions”—but also a container where geopolitical competitors for future space (military) domination could keep an eye on one another. First it was just the Americans and the Russkies, then it began to look like the international student’s dorm.
From another perspective certain realities certain realities began to set in, the Columbia and Challenger disasters not being the least of them. But there was also the recognition that space stations became places of containment for body odors, gasses and sloughed off skin cells. It took eons for humans to come up with a good toilet; but going into space—spectacular window views notwithstanding—must be like an incarceration in the men’s room of a bus station in Newark. As far as my personal astronaut fantasies were concerned they ended with the revelation (thanks to the whacky female space case who tried to whack a romantic competitor) that astronauts wear diapers.
Still, there are school kids today who aspire to go to Mars (some parents can hardly wait.). And maybe we are already unconsciously preparing them for the voyage. Mind you, these are kids have great opposable thumb dexterity derived from non-stop text messaging and video games, so they handle all the tech stuff very well. But they also tend to have the attention span of a May fly. Have they considered it is probably a six-month trip out to the red planet, that they will have to remain there si-months while the planet re-positions in orbit for the trip back, which is still another six months—a year and a half without being able to order in pizza.
In some of the old footage that was exhumed for this anniversary one of the astronauts remarked about orbiting over earth-night. He said he could see where the deserts are in Africa because the little campfires of nomadic people can be discerned flickering in the blackness. It reminds me first of Kubrick’s opening of 2001 with the hominids discovering bones could be weapons. But it is also a reminder of how far we have come so fast—astronauts contemporaneous with nomads. A lot has been said, then and now, about human curiosity, the need to explore, “to go where no man has gone before”; I admit to a touch of that myself. Once the earth itself, with terra incognita and “dark continents,” and still with sea bottoms no flippered-foot has imprinted, was plenty spacious enough for adventure.
It just might be that the moon landings created two, somewhat contradictory notions. One was that we might want to begin colonizing our solar system, and beyond, that earth might not be big enough or sustainable enough to contain all of us. We have always run from our problems by moving to another place; but we can no longer do that, we have reached finisterre and now must learn to deal with that reality.
The other, and in my view more salutary, notion was that the very view of earth from the surface of the moon—a desolate and inhospitable rock—engendered the environmental movement. The Apollo program brought home that we humans are evolved to inhabit the surface of a planet with the fortuitous (but perhaps not exclusive) chemical composition that enabled life. We are part of that system of life exclusive to earth. Eventually it will all come to an end, sooner than later if we do not respect and value it. The Apollo program gave us the sense not of infinity, but of finiteness.*
Some astronauts remarked upon the stark beauty of the moonscape. OK, space and other planets can be visually beautiful, but my aesthetic sensibilities run to the terrestrial. Give me the evening light over the Bay of Naples from Sorrento, the karst mountains in the misty perspective along the Li River in China, the wild meeting of great oceans on rounding Cape Horn, Venice rising from water on a sea approach from the Adriatic, the color of the water off Mykonos, the exhilaration of sailing down the Nile in the morning. And then there are the cities.
There is no need to pay, as some millionaire did, millions to take a ride to the space station. We are already aboard a spaceship. He views will be beautiful, but only that of earth will be welcoming. If you can’t see that from the expensive photos we took from the moon, you’re a damn fool, earthling. You have forgotten that there is no place like home.
Really? You, really thought this piece was gonna be about Michael Jackson?
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.24.2009)
*J. Clapp, “The Rise of Ad-Finite Planning: Concepts and Concerns,” (1979)