Friday, July 10, 2009

The Moon Landing at 40

Randall Stephens

With the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission just around the corner--the landing was on July 20--it's a good time to reflect on what that meant and still means. In 1969/70, some rhapsodized about the power of human innovation and the horizon of exploration. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, playwright Arthur Miller wrote in the July 21 edition of the New York Times:

There are two schools of thought about the moon landing. One heralds it as the start of a new Age of Discovery like the period that began in 1492. The other regards it as a distraction from social problems. Few, though, feel anything but pride in the men who step over the astral frontier; even the crabbers are secretly envious of them.

I think it's a great thing for all of us. After the moon we undoubtedly will put men on other planets further and further away from Earth. The climax, which I doubt anyone alive will witness, will come when a scientific expedition finally lands on 125th Street or the North Side of Waterbury, Connecticut.

On the run in Algiers, Eldridge Cleaver, Information Minister of the Black Panther party, unleashed a torrent of criticism. On July 20 he told New York Times reporters that the moon landing program was a "misuse of public funds." Cleaver didn't see "what benefit mankind will have from two astronauts landing on the moon while people are being murdered in Vietnam," and starving in the U.S. Politicians like Nixon, "number one pig," were to blame

Others, like Norman Mailer--razor-tongue gonzo journalist, premature curmudgeon, and egomaniac--used the moon landing to rant against America's banal technophilia. He wrote in Of a Fire on the Moon: "Armstrong and Aldrin were to do an EVA that night. EVA stood for Extra Vehicle Activity, and that was presumably a way to describe the most curious steps ever taken. It is one thing to murder the language of Shakespeare - another to be unaware how rich was the
victim. Future murders stood in the shadow of the acronyms. It was as if on the largest stage ever created, before an audience of half the earth, a man of modest appearance would walk to the centre, smile tentatively at the footlights, and read a page from a data card. The audience would groan and Beckett and Warhol give their sweet smiles."*

Now to the present... In the Guardian Christopher Riley has written "The Moon Walkers: Twelve Men Who Have Visited Another World." Maybe his piece indicates that the landing is no longer a sounding board for politics?

The 12 members of the most exclusive club in human history had many things in common.

All came from a highly technical background and all but one studied aeronautical or astronautical engineering. Growing up, many had been Boy Scouts and even more were active members of their University fraternities. They all went on to study for further degrees – many at military test pilot schools – and almost all of them saw active service in cold war skies, often flying nuclear weapons behind enemy lines.

Popular Mechanics features a collection of essays on all things 40th-anniversary-moon-landing related. Highlights include: "Is America's Space Administration Over the Hill? Next-Gen NASA"; "Giant Leaps: Apollo 11 Alums Reflect 40 Years Later at MIT Conference"; and "Exploring the Moon: Apollo 11, The Untold Story."

For an excellent documentary on the moon landing and space race, see Race to the Moon (PBS, 2005).

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