Tinsel Town is worried about American jingoism. In First Man, a new movie about Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the Moon, Hollywood has expurgated the planting of the American flag. That image, witnessed by about 15% of the world’s population and by billions since, is now politically incorrect and shouldn’t be seen. It might injure the fragile ego of someone in some corner of the world by reminding them that it wasn’t their nation that got their flag there first. It’s okay to use Armstrong to sell tickets and popcorn but déclassé to recognize the fact that he was an American riding an American rocket built with American money by thousands of American scientists and aerospace workers. Five American astronauts, Charles Basset, Eliot See, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee, died during the build-up to the Moon landing, but it would be immodest, according to the film’s makers, to include a small patriotic gesture recognizing these facts.
There was more than enough modesty in the American enterprise for, while we were proud of it, we laid no territorial claim upon the Moon. Neil Armstrong even passed the accomplishment on to mankind while taking his “small step” and continued to be modest about his heroism till his death in 2011. After the obligatory ticker tape parade on his return to Earth and other honorifics, he quietly blended back into everyday life. I suspect many wouldn’t have recognized him on the street, if the first foot to touch the lunar surface should have accidentally trod on their foot. He appeared to be just another mild-mannered Ohioan, maybe an insurance salesman, barber, or dentist. He was, however, a daring pioneer of the New Frontier, and it seems just yesterday and not close to five decades ago that Armstrong made history.
That night, the Moon was waxing crescent. Over half of it was in darkness, like a coquette hiding her face behind a fan while peeking round it with speculative interest at a suitor. This was apt, as three gentlemen callers — Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — were coming to visit. Millions remember where they were when they paid their call. I was in Bethlehem — Bethlehem, New Hampshire, that is. This small town in the White Mountains was originally called “Lloyd’s Hills” after a Boston land speculator, but when he chose the Loyalist side in the American Revolution, its residents no longer felt any loyalty to him. On December 25th, 1799, the last Christmas of the 18thcentury, they renamed their town “Bethlehem.” It remained a farm village till the mid-19thcentury, when the railroad came through. New Yorkers, Bostonians, and other city dwellers who then had no air conditioning to help them endure summer’s heat, discovered that the town was a delightfully temperate place to spend a vacation. Hotels sprang up that offered placid pleasures like croquet, carriage-riding, golf, and picnicking. Come evening, you could promenade along the town’s mile-and-a-half of boardwalk or relax in a rocking chair on a wide veranda. It was a healthy place, too. The town’s high elevation meant that there was little pollen, something that provided a respite from hay fever in pre-antihistamine days. The hotels grew grand, drawing visitors like P. T. Barnum, Robert Frost, and presidents Grant, Hayes, Roosevelt, Taft, and Harding, but Bethlehem’s appeal faded when more exotic spots became easy to reach. The town remained popular with Jewish vacationers, who weren’t welcome at other resorts. They turned Bethlehem into a Lesser Catskills. In the heart of WASPy New England, kosher was kept, a synagogue was built, and you could get a decent loaf of rye bread. The village named after a Jewish city had become, at least in summer, a Jewish town where local kids learned about Jewish culture while working as chambermaids, waiters, waitresses, dishwashers, and busboys. It was in this last occupation that I found my teenaged self in the summer of the Moon landing.
The guests, especially the older ones, liked to hobnob with the young staff. We got lots of advice, illustrated by colorful stories. A tailor explained, citing personal experience, that I should never take a business partner who was a schnook like he had or marry a wife with a tuches un a halb because “such a one is hard to keep fed.” More somberly, a grey-haired woman in the town library told me, when I expressed surprise at a copy of Mein Kampf in the stacks that had been donated by a Jewish benefactor, “About that guy, Hitler, you should know.” A line of numbers on her arm added authority to her recommendation. “Everyone should know,” she insisted.
A particular favorite guest of mine was a slow-moving, rotund retiree of 93. He habitually finished his meals with a piping hot cup of water to “cut the gas” that otherwise troubled him. He had fled persecution in Russia with nearly nothing to become a diamond cutter in America. When I observed that must be a tricky profession, what with the possibility of ruining an expensive gem with an errant tap, he smiled, said yes, and added that a bad cut wasn’t the only way to foul up. He told me that the diamond merchants had workshops in the “Diamond District” in New York City. On hot days, all the windows would be open. This mundane action sometimes had an extraordinary consequence. The diamonds were polished by locking them in a clamp that held them against a buffing wheel. If the clamp loosened, a diamond might be spun loose and flung right out a window. The flying stones would be lost in the street below, skittering like cockroaches into a crack in the sidewalk or burrowing into roadway grime. It was a rare accident but, with all the workshops near each other and during the many years of their operation, the number of diamonds thrown into the street was notable. The diamond cutter laughed, conjecturing a falling jewel ticking a passing female pedestrian’s head and snaring in her hair. “Maybe, she thinks an ugly bug is after her. She swats it away, and it’s gone. Something she’d marry an ugly bug to get!”
It was next to the diamond cutter that I was sitting on July 20, 1969. We were in the hotel’s TV lounge, where guests had crowded to watch the Lunar Excursion Module set down on the moon. I was a bit perturbed at the insistence of some of my companions that the simulated footage of the landing, which was intercut with actual video from NASA’s cameras in the LEM, showed the real event and not models manipulated by television technicians. I wanted to announce, “There aren’t any cameras on the moon filming the LEM descending, unless it’s the Moonman Broadcasting Corporation.” But I had been brought up to be polite to my elders. Still, like a lot of Baby Boomers, I felt possessive of the space program and didn’t like it being misunderstood. We’d been told that this was our future and that, one day, we might get our turn to walk upon the Moon or Mars or some more distant world. We became the proto-nerds, the precursors to the grand nerds of today. We liked astronomy and learned to identify all the parts of NASA’s rockets. In those days before pocket calculators and home computers, we used pencil and paper to figure out what it would take to lift a cargo coincidentally equal to our weight into orbit. We wished with youthful fanaticism for the fruition of the Space Age and eagerly sought visions of it in science fiction. Even the cheesiest sci-fi movies caught our interest with peeks of what might come to be. Like a kid watching wrapped presents pile up on his birthday, we couldn’t wait for the future to come and give us all the wonders we imagined. But that didn’t quite happen. On the way to the future, something went wrong.
In countless ways, science has brought progress, but we didn’t get everything we hoped for. There aren’t any jet packs for commuters. Our cities aren’t domed or laced with monorails. Robots don’t walk our dogs. And, most disappointing for aging space nerds, America’s manned space program petered out. We got just a few more moon landings, and these the public hardly noticed. The Space Shuttle was supposed to provide an inexpensive means to launch astronauts and cargo into Earth orbit, and we got over a hundred successful shuttle missions and the International Space Station (ISI), but two tragic accidents undercut NASA’s reputation. Many doubted if space travel was worth such horrible deaths. In addition to this human cost, monetary costs exceeded expectations. When it neared time to replace the Space Shuttle, President Obama, ignoring the protests of space travel proponents, including Armstrong, abruptly ended the Constellation program meant to provide a rocket to support the ISI. Now, American astronauts can’t reach it without buying a seat on a Russian rocket. A ticket cost $21.8 million while the Space Shuttle was flying, but the Russians, former Communists turned capitalists, hiked the price to about $75 million when it was grounded and they were the only way up.
Private companies were supposed to build rockets to carry aloft American astronauts, but while important strides have been made, that is yet to be realized. According to present plans, even the ISI won’t remain in operation much longer. The most generous projection of its survival is that it will be decommissioned in 2028. Russia intends to take the parts it claims as its property to build its own space station and use it to put a Russian on the Moon by 2030. The rest may be deliberately “de-orbited”—sent plummeting into Earth’s atmosphere to burn and tear into blackened junk that will litter the bottom of the Pacific. Obama suggested modest efforts to support commercial space exploration, a mission to a near-Earth asteroid, and someday, a Mars mission, but these were projects with long timelines reaching into a nebulous future. NASA administrator Charles Bolden told an al-Jazeera interviewer about Obama’s more urgent goals: “He charged me with three things. One, he wanted me to help reinspire (sic) children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.” Instead of advancing American aerospace engineering and exploring space, it was more important for NASA to play schoolmarm to get kids to crack their schoolbooks, play diplomat to make international buddies, and most importantly, play cheerleader to Muslims. Like the makers of First Man, Obama was concerned that America was hogging the glory of space exploration. Others shared Obama’s agenda and some thought space travel wasn’t worthwhile at all.
While the science-lovers in the Baby Boom generation reveled in technological progress, an influential portion of the Boomers rejected it, blaming it for damaging the environment, dehumanizing life, destroying jobs through automation, empowering the military “war machine,” filling the pockets of evil corporations, and spoiling their daydreams about living a more primitive, Walden-ish life. The large sums spent on space travel were also tempting benchmarks for funds to spend elsewhere, and the successes of the space program raised expectations of what government could do. “We sent a man to the moon, why can’t we do X? Why can’t we spend as much for X. Why blast money into space instead of spending it on Earth?” Investment in manned space exploration faltered to be replaced by less costly unmanned efforts. Machines have crawled across Mars, photographed distant galaxies, mapped the Solar System, and measured all sorts of cosmic phenomena, but a computer with a camera eye and a claw hand isn’t as inspiring as a human being standing on alien soil.
In December 2017, President Donald Trump announced a change in American space policy, calling for a public/private effort to return to the Moon and then land on Mars. In June 2018, he endorsed the creation of a Space Force to extend America’s military capabilities into Space. He intends for America to explore space, but to also use the technology the effort creates to defend our nation. Unfortunately, there are threats to his vision. The Pork Machine in Washington prefers to buy votes by spending tax money on more government cheese, pompous edifices named after politicians, plusher offices for bureaucrats, and weird grants doled out by the National Endowment for the Arts (they gave one for Doggie Hamlet, a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a cast of dogs, sheep, and some dancers cavorting in sheepskins). The haters of technology — now using the high technology of the Internet — will rail against more technology. Trump’s political enemies will attack his ideas simply because he advocates them, fearing his success is their failure. Those, like the makers of First Man, who see an image of America’s flag on the Moon as a call to nationalism, are also a threat. They undermine the will to move forward by stigmatizing justified pride in great achievements.
This glum situation wasn’t imaginable to space nerds like me, back when I was sitting by my 93-year-old friend watching Armstrong step onto the lunar surface. The old man had nearly nodded off, but I had nudged him awake to see the big moment and now his eyes sparkled. “I never thought to see such a thing,” he marveled, “And I’ve seen plenty.” He had told me how he was fearful when he came to America, but, as the steamer sailed into New York Harbor, the lights of the city had shone in invitation to a great adventure. He had seen those lights grow brighter and more numerous over the years, till the city’s night blazed with hectic light. He remembered sputtering, stuttering motorcars scaring horses, listening to the tiny voice of a crystal radio set, and gaping up at buzzing airplanes made of canvas, wood, and wire flown by daring men like Armstrong. Motion pictures had been enchanting, and television had brought the world and now the Moon to him. He was proud that America had been the first there and proud that it was America’s flag Armstrong planted on its surface because he, like Armstrong, was an American. I teased him by asking if NASA invited him to go into space, would he go? “Oh, no, no. I’m too old. Better, you should go. Imagine the things you’ll see.”
Well, I won’t be going to the Moon any time soon, and neither will you. Once, we were proud to spend our wealth on open-ended dreams that would bring new and bigger dreams, but the confidence in American possibilities and the daring to make them real is being eroded by an “elite” filled with smug hatred for the nation that gave them their status. Like an art critic who couldn’t complete a paint-by-number portrait of a clown without making Bozo look like a Jackson Pollock nightmare, they nevertheless insist they know better than anyone else what is good. They elevate poking holes in real accomplishments over actually accomplishing something themselves. America never was all that great, they insist, but, of course, theyaren’t part of its failures and have wonderful ideas on how to improve it. Anything that challenges this self-appointed and self-anointed aristocracy must be erased and replaced by whatever can empower them.
Whether the smug like it or understand it, America’s flag is a symbol of a way of life and a nation where Armstrong’s courage could take him to the Moon and where my diamond cutter friend, hounded from his European home, could bravely seek out a new life. We should be proud of this and insist that that pride be allowed its expression. Not only does it honor achievers, it has the pragmatic benefit of fueling future achievements. If the contemptuous smug prevail, America will set its sights lower. A force for progress in the world will wither. It would certainly be decades, if ever, before Armstrong would be honored with a lunar “Armstrongville.”
Other nations aren’t as afflicted with such self-doubt. Maybe China will pick up the dream of man conquering space, or India, and there’s always Russia, eager to advance its interests. Their young people may live the dream we once dreamed. When I think about my long-ago fantasies of blazing rockets and strange worlds, I can’t help but remember the diamond cutter and those sparkling diamonds sent spinning into the void. Some time ago, I read about a guy who scrapes up the dirt in the Diamond District and pans it. He makes a modest living finding bits of jewelry and those spun free diamonds. There’s solace in the thought that some lost things of beauty can be found again.