Two Historic Anniversaries, One Lesson
What we can learn from going to the Moon and going to Hell.
Eleven o’clock on the morning of November 11, 2018 marks the centennial anniversary of the armistice that effectively ended World War I. By chance, it coincides closely with the release of the film First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong. The film is being released now so that it can play a part at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2019 — the 50th anniversary of the original Moon landing.
You might think I’m grasping at straws by tying a Hollywood movie about space travel to a commemoration as noteworthy and solemn as Armistice Day. I promise you there’s a good reason. The day of remembrance and the film on the silver screen both bring us back to pivotal moments in history, 51 years apart, that changed the world permanently and profoundly.
We learn history as recorded facts of a bygone time, as banal details on a page. We forget that those who create history never had — or have — the same comfort of certainty. In many cases, they couldn’t even be sure they would survive to tell about it. Many of them didn’t. Putting ourselves in the boots of those who lived through these momentous episodes reminds us not to take achievement for granted.
One Small Step
The story of the first Moon landing is the happier of the two, but offers no less insight. Not a single person in July 1969 could be sure that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins would make a successful journey to the Moon and back. President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, went so far as to draft a speech for the event that the mission ended in disaster. An excerpt:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
Despite the positive outcome being well known to us now, the film still succeeds in building terrific suspense by portraying how for several days, on the contrary, the whole world held its collective breath.
As you can see in the graphic below, a trip to the Moon is no Sunday stroll. When Apollo 11 launched from Earth, they couldn’t just point and shoot, because the target is moving. They needed to aim at where the Moon was going to be four days later, which is how long it took them to get there. This was in addition to calculating the amount of fuel needed for a return trip and the amount of oxygen needed to sustain three men for eight days; designing malleable, heated, airtight spacesuits; and engineering a heat shield to protect the astronauts as they hurtled back through Earth’s atmosphere. Compared to those challenges, fabricating parachutes that could slow their descent down from 11 km/s to a survivable impact speed was the easy part. Needless to say, it truly was rocket science.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an army to leave Earth and return in one piece. You need mathematicians and astrophysicists, doctors and nurses, biologists, psychologists, virtually every discipline of engineer, and a plethora of bureaucratic professionals to manage logistics, human resources, legal issues, financial accounting, and media relations. Even then, catastrophes still happen. Despite operating with the cutting-edge technology and expertise of the day, the crews of Apollo 1, Space Shuttle Challenger, and Space Shuttle Columbia all perished. There was also the Apollo 13 mission, made famous by the film of the same name, whose three astronauts came within an inch of their lives.
As it turns out, so did Neil Armstrong. Had one wrong gasket broken, or one wrong circuit shorted, he may well have ended up as just another name on a memorial plaque at NASA, just like the three astronauts of the Apollo 1 mission who were supposed to be the first on the Moon. Instead, they died in a fire on the launch pad. Their names are virtually unknown.
Progress is painful and messy. There are no sure things. But the will to dare is worth it: to the technology developed during the space race we owe everything from camera phones and GPS to baby formula and memory foam — along with a more mature perspective of our fragile existence on this small Blue Marble.
In the Trenches
The sentiment of shared humanity in space exploration stands in stark contrast to our other anniversary. A popular saying in 1914 was that the war would be “over by Christmas.” It lasted four muddy, hellish years. One needs only listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast masterpiece Blueprint for Armageddon (all six parts) to understand that the First World War was incredibly brutal during its opening stages, and was, at that time, unprecedented in its mechanized weaponry and industrial scale. Writing in August, 1914, the British writer H.G. Wells called it “The War That Will End War,” arguing:
This is already the vastest war in history. It is war not of nations, but of mankind. It is a war to exorcise a world-madness and end an age… For this is now a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!
Famous last words.
To the stories told of the twentieth century’s terrible cruelty and bloodshed we owe our privileged understanding of what war is really like. The teenagers in uniform, who were fed a diet of pious platitudes before reaching the battlefield in 1914, had no such benefit. The casualty rate was so high during the first months of the war that the governments of Britain and Canada were forced several times to reduce the minimum height required to enlist. Twenty-year-old Captain Edwin Vaughn, a British Army officer, understood only too well. Recalling the Battle of Ypres in 1917, he wrote:
From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the [rain] water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning.
War has evolved over the years, but the horror remains eternal. In the documentary series The Vietnam War from directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a veteran named Roger Harris recalls a phone call with his mother. He told her that she’d probably never see him again because everyone in his vulnerable outpost was dying. His mother insisted he would come home, reminding him that she “talked to God every day, and you’re special. You’re coming back.” Roger replied “Ma, everybody’s mother thinks they’re special. I’m putting pieces of special people in bags.”
On November 11 people often speak of the sacrifices made to preserve our freedoms. I prefer to recognize those sacrifices as poignant monuments to human frailty, to the times when humanity lost its fucking mind. Someday, my children will be taught that for every propagandized act of valour in combat, for every moment of politicized, patriotic pride, there are a thousand untold stories of needless, lonely, inglorious suffering. The most important lesson war can offer is that it’s good for nothing.
We must remember to approach the challenges of our own time with the awareness that today is tomorrow’s history, and we are its authors. More errors will be made, but there is no excuse for repeating the mistakes of our predecessors. They made them so that we wouldn’t have to. The inspiring achievements of the first Moon landing, and the solemn lessons of the First World War, were hard won. Keeping that in mind is the best way to honour them all.
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