On the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it’s tempting to emulate William F. Buckley, who was asked how he would describe the event. “With silence,” Buckley said. This defining human achievement soon had the effect of making such awe harder to come by. Those who grew up after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface viewed walking on the moon as an accepted fact of life, and it quickly became absorbed into an age of wonders. It’s said we’re a postmodern culture, but it might be more accurate now to call us post-Apollo. The bar was set so high and so far that a generation came of age effectively shrugging its shoulders, as if its answer to the question “How do you top that?” was, “Don’t even try.”
If one is not going to take Buckley’s vow of silence, though, he can start almost anywhere in taking stock of what half a billion people saw on July 20, 1969. It’s worth remembering that the feat was the fulfillment of millennia of human imagination. Today, we’re more accustomed to breaking through obstacles in a matter of years or decades. Consider that the Human Genome Project was organized in 1990 and completed its work in 2003. Often the ambition never even enters the public mind, things are moving so fast. People weren’t crying out for cell phones or writing poetry imagining their invention. They just arrived. Many technological advances today have that after-the-fact quality to them. Only later do we note how, in ways big or small, the new things have changed us.
Apollo, what Tom Wolfe calls “the greatest crash program of all time,” made a remarkable, decade-long sprint to meet the goal set by President John F. Kennedy to place a man on the moon before the decade was out. It had public support and it operated under the supreme pressures of the fixed timeline and the threatening competitor. The mission was inseparable from Cold War politics, as Kennedy made clear to his NASA head, James Webb, in a 1962 meeting. “Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians,” Kennedy said. He warned Webb that “otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space.” It showed just how far Kennedy was, for anyone who still doesn’t know, from his romantic, Camelot image. But Kennedy’s executive vision was impressive.
We should also note the courage and skill of the Apollo 11 astronauts — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, and those who came before and after them. Their professionalism was never more in evidence than when Armstrong improvised the lunar module’s landing when he saw that the designated landing spot was rife with boulders. After the successful touch-down, Aldrin asked each viewer to “pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” (NASA was then fighting a lawsuit from atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who objected to the Apollo 8 crew’s reading from Genesis in space.) Then, privately, Aldrin, an elder at a Presbyterian church, gave himself communion. When it was time to depart, Aldrin, as unflappable as Armstrong, noticed that he’d accidentally broken the circuit breaker that would start the main engine. Somehow, he had a felt tip pen handy, and used it to activate the switch.
It’s striking to read the immediate news accounts of the 1969 landing, not only for their sense of wonder but for their assumption that the moon was just the beginning. This was best captured by the title of an article in Time: “Next, Mars and Beyond.” Wernher von Braun felt that we could make it to Mars “as early as 1982.” But instead of starting that push, after the Apollo program concluded in 1972, the U.S. space program downshifted. Wolfe points out that NASA’s budget plummeted 40 percent from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, from $5 billion to $3 billion. The focus since the moon landing has been on “orbital” flights, exemplified by the space shuttle, that fly around the heavens. Many have criticized the nation’s loss of interest in space generally, and manned flights in particular, after Apollo. It’s another sign of our decline, they say. We should have reached Mars long before now.
Maybe. For all of the laments, though, it’s hard to see how such complacency could have been avoided after the great moon shot. It seems inevitable that we would lose interest in space, at least for a time; inevitable that we would find the moon landing ho-hum, and blanch at the staggering costs of an ongoing space program; inevitable that we would turn inward again, after the most outward-looking of feats. Even a society not fraught with crises of faith, social order, and history would probably have felt the same spiritual deflation. It’s an existential problem more than a cultural one, though we’ve done a good job, with our culture, of making it worse. We won’t solve the mysteries of morale and imagination any more than we’ll solve the mysteries of good and evil.
But the American sense of urgency about space hasn’t quite died. In 2004, President Bush released his Vision for Space Exploration, which calls for a return to the moon in 2020 as the springboard for manned trips to Mars. The current NASA administrator has set 2037 as a target date for landing on Mars, but the European Space Agency seems determined to get there a few years earlier. Assuming these projections are realistic — and I doubt one in ten people knows the first thing about them — it will be interesting to see if American political leaders feel any compulsion to push the timelines. It’s hard to imagine men like Kennedy and the leaders of the Apollo program allowing another power to beat us out by just a few years. They would stay up late and find some way to move into the lead.
But then, they were part of an era whose goals and convictions seem increasingly remote. The Times‘s A.O. Scott describes the “absence of feeling, the dearth of meaning, that accompanied the widespread awe and wonder” of the moon landing, and though he overstates, the outlook he describes has tended to predominate in the generation since. It’s in our books and movies and politics, and it’s helped short-circuit our efforts on Earth as well as outer space. We seem more comfortable today with ironic self-awareness, which has its virtues but insulates us from the hard choices great ambition demands. Self-criticism and rocket propulsion rely on different sources of energy.
I hope we do make it to Mars by 2037, or before. I hope we’re first, and that I’m around to see it. There will be plenty of time for irony then, but only if we get there.