Remembering the Apollo Program as a Lost Future

A Historian’s thoughts on the 50th Anniversary

Image credit: NASA (source)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first crewed landing on the moon. In between all the commemorative activities — documentaries, parades, events, speeches — that also means we’re undoubtedly going to see a reappraisal of what Apollo means. This happens at all big anniversaries, and it’s usually controversial. The 50th anniversary of the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was particularly fraught, but closer to home, every ANZAC day is marked by reinterpretation as part of remembrance. What’s interesting is the way spaceflight — and Apollo in particular — has shown up in my research on work. Asking the question ‘What does spaceflight mean?’ is particularly important in 2019, but I think it also produces some surprising answers.

Historical Memory

Back when I used to lecture in American History, I built my course around three themes, one of which was historical memory. I was particularly influenced by the work of David Blight on the ‘Lost Cause’ myth in the American South, and Richard White’s work on the American Frontier. White wrote about the competing versions of the frontier spun by Buffalo Bill and Frederick Jackson Turner at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Turner, the sober historian, crafted a narrative in which immigrants were scoured of their nationality by the hardships of the frontier, but in remaking the wilderness into tilled and tamed soil, they built themselves back up into Americans by virtue of hard work. Buffalo Bill Turner, on the other hand, told a story of savage action, where white settlers in wagon circles defended themselves against wild Indians in bloody gunfights.

They’re both stories of rugged individualism, but Turner’s is about pioneers and log cabins, whereas Buffalo Bill’s is about soldiers and scalping. As White points out, although they appear to be a dichotomy of fact and fiction, the stories have merged over the last 100 years into a remarkably coherent picture of the past that still informs how we talk about cowboys and Indians today. White writes:

“These stories we tell about the West matter. They not only reveal how we think about ourselves, but also help determine how we choose to act toward each other. … The stories [Turner and Bill] told were not so much invented (although there was some of that) as selected from the past, with he authors erasing images that did not fit. Such selectivity was necessary, for the past itself is not a story; it is the raw material from which we make coherent stories, not all of them factual.”

As I used to point out to my students, selectivity isn’t just about what you put in — it’s about what you leave out.

The Final Frontier

I let my students choose their essay topics for my survey course, and one of the suggested topics was the Apollo landings. It wasn’t a very good suggestion; as I found out from marking many bad papers over the four years, there really wasn’t very much good historical work about the space program. I had hoped that students who really ‘got’ this notion of historical memory would see it as an opportunity to watch a bunch of movies and compare their interpretation of the moon landings to, say, primary material such as newspapers or TV broadcasts. Alas, all I got was essays overburdened with technical specifications that regurgitated the argument that NASA’s crowning glory was somehow both a unifying moment in world history and also a sign that the United States was just a better country than everyone else (but especially the Soviets). My students were always impervious to the idea that these narratives of technical mastery, national glory and global unity were the very historical memories I wanted them to take as their subject.

One of the primary vehicles for historical interpretation is films, at least in the last 100 years. Even since the 1980s, films about the US space program have evolved. In The Right Stuff, made in the maverick ultracapitalist 1980s, astronauts were frontiersmen, cut from a superior cloth to the rest of us because of their all-American gumption and rugged cowboy-like individualism. After all, space is the final frontier, and as the ill-fated Firefly shows us, the West and space go together surpassingly well. In Apollo 13, in the querulous 1990s, they became symbols of national resilience in the face of tumultuous disaster, with near-certain catastrophe averted by technical know-how and a can-do attitude. Apollo 13 is a story of massive collective activity towards a goal rather than individual gumption. In the 2010s, in the face of #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, Hidden Figures made herculean efforts to reintroduce black women into the story of Mercury, while First Man gave us a tiny glimpse of the price astronauts’ wives paid for their ambition. At the same time, it turned white male astronauts into emotionally stunted, robotic men whose entire job was to not freak out under enormous physical and psychological pressures. Gone were the cowboys of the 1980s and the boisterous patriots of the 1990s, replaced by cold, hard, millennial drive.

As White pointed out about the frontier, there is a little bit of truth in all of these stories. The black women who served as ‘human computers’ on the Mercury program really existed, and were selectively removed from the story of white gumption and technical prowess. Astronauts were occasionally cowboys. In the opening sequence of the documentary Last Man on the Moon, Eugene Cernan attends a rodeo in a Stetson. He also acknowledges the poor treatment of the wives by the Apollo astronauts, secure in their gated military suburbs. First Man uses archival broadcast footage of Kurt Vonnegut and a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” to point out very real contemporary disgruntlement at the perceived wastage of public funds on Saturn Vs when people were starving on Earth. And Apollo 13’s symphony of collective action echoed Michael Collins’ own writing on the Apollo landings:

… The Saturn V rocket which put us in orbit is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery, every piece of which worked flawlessly … We have always had confidence that this equipment will work properly. All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of a number of people … All you see is the three of us, but beneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others, and to all of those, I would like to say, “Thank you very much.”
Image credit; NASA (source)

The Saturn V is a perfect metaphor for collective activity towards a goal, with the tiny conical command module containing the astronauts the figurative tip of a very large spear, borne aloft by generations of scientists and technicians. Which is why, I think, so many scholars who care about work or collective activity mention the space program, and Apollo in particular, in their work.

Utopian Dreams of Freedom

Hannah Arendt called Sputnik an event “second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom”. But the surly earthen bonds that Sputnik slipped were not just those of gravity:

“…curiously enough, this joy was not triumphal; it was not pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power and mastery which filled the hearts of men, who now, when they looked up from the earth toward the skies, could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.’ And this strange statement, far from being the accidental slip of some American reporter, unwittingly echoed the extraordinary line which, more than twenty years ago, had been carved on the funeral obelisk for one of Russia’s great scientists: ‘Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever’.”

Note the references to ‘imprisonment’ and ‘bondage’, and the implied presence of their obverse, liberty. These are ideas that show up curiously often in scholars’ work on work. Tom Hodgkinson, in How to be Idle, calls it out explicitly: “space represented the ideal of freedom”.

So too does Asif Siddiqi, writing about Soviet dreams of spaceflight, which promised “total liberation from the signifiers of the past: social injustice, imperfection, gravity, and ultimately, the Earth.” He notes a riot taking place when in 1924 rumours started to circulate about a possible Soviet moonshot. Snricek and Williams interpret Siddiqi’s evidence to show that “one of the most pervasive and subtle aspects of hegemony is the limitations it imposes upon our collective imagination.” If space travel in the 1960s made the impossible seem within reach, then in the 2010s its absence helps to narrow our horizons, making what used to feel possible seem too difficult.

In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber calls the motivations that drove Apollo a “mythic vision,” and laments that such visions are lacking nowadays. But he also points out that it was a “quintessential Big Government project”, arguing, like Perelman and Mazzucato, that the private sector is broadly incapable of producing innovation on the same scale or impact as public research funding.

Oli Mould agrees with Graeber in Against Creativity, citing JFK’s speech to Congress on 25 May 1961 as a promise to “do the impossible”. For Mould, it’s the fact that it was a public project funded by the public that made the moon shot stand out: “It was a global triumph of the collective creative imagination to propel humanity onward to on its journey of civilisation. It was the belief in, and achievement of, an impossible dream.” He notes, however, that “perhaps it was the last”. Now, he laments, “some of the most ambitious ideas that humanity has been imagined have been comandeered by capital. … Creativity has been privatised.”

Like Snricek and Williams, Graeber amd Mould interpret Apollo as a sign that something has gone very wrong, and that the historical trajectory we are on has changed for the worse since the 1970s. Graeber points out that space travel went from suborbital flight to the moon only to falter and withdraw to a decrepit space station in low earth orbit. Similarly, the sense of possibility that took designers from the DC-3 to Concorde has evaporated, leaving travellers in the cramped, uncomfortable confines of airborne mass transit, stubbornly limited by the speed of sound. Mould notes that innovation is not directed towards equitable or utilitarian ends: “any giant leaps we make are dictated by private capital”. The loss of interest in faster aircraft while ‘innovation’ is focused on cramming more people in existing airframes to increase revenue for airlines demonstrates what people motivated by profit really care about.

Hodgkinson notes the prevalence in our time of language that suggests that reaching for the stars is folly, and resignation to the instrumentality of the profit motive, the market, and the ‘real world’ is smart:

“But gazing heavenward is seen as a waste of time by our practical-minded rulers. Our very language makes a virtue of being stuck on the earth, and criticizes those with loftier aspirations. Bad: head in the clouds, starry-eyed, losing grip, not living in the real world, moon-faced loon, lunatic, airy-fairy, space cadet, away with the fairies, moonstruck, on another planet. Good: feet on the ground, anchored, down-to-earth, grounded, keeping your head down, getting a grip.”

The proliferation of economy seating is a perfect metaphor for the sghared concerns of these authors: at some stage, people stopped dreaming about impossible projects — famously begun, in Kennedy’s parlance, precisely because they are hard — and lowered their horizons to just squeezing out the last few drops of efficiency from existing technologies.

Uniting these scholars is a sense that Apollo made a Utopian future seem just over the horizon. Hodgkinson frames it like this:

“Man wants to fly, to see the gods, to become a god. The NASA moon landings were of course the most spectacular demonstration off this urge. Despite the clinical science and practical nature of these moon flights, the wonder, mystery and magic of them was not killed. Space, indeed, has been the latest arena for the millennia-long battle between the materialists and the mystics.”

Slipping the Surly Bonds of Work

The notion of freedom from work features pretty heavily in all the work I’ve read by white men on the topic of the future of work, so naturally the idea of freedom from gravity functions as a near-perfect metaphor. Never mind the selectively ignored fact that zero gravity is uncomfortable and takes a toll on the body. It’s worth noting that the one woman I’m citing here was very attached to the idea that there will never be any meaningful freedom from toil: Arendt acknowledges that Labour is a never-ending struggle against growth and decay. None of the men seem happy to acknowledge that someone still needs to take out the garbage, they just want the garbage dealt with. That the men working in this space see any constraints on their lives as unbearable might be the result of some extraordinary historical privilege.

But I think that at Apollo’s 50th Anniversary, people will latch onto the moon landings for different reasons. Whatever they are, they’ll based on the present, not the past. For me, it looks something like this: our world of work is one where people (in the first world office at least) struggle to find meaning in their work; where everyone is a project manager, every job involves ‘soft skills’ like ‘stakeholder management’ and ‘influencing without authority’, and where desired outcomes are so poorly articulated that we need an army of clunky, metastasising acronyms to explain them (are they SMART, SMARTTA or ISMART goals now?). In this world, Apollo represents the holy grail: meaningful work that utilises the hard-won skills you actually trained for, towards a clearly delineated goal, with obvious criteria of success and failure. Precisely because we live in a moment where collective action is nearly impossible and the instrumentality of the market and the profit motive rules over everything, we need Apollo as a story of collective activity on a grand scale.

This post was originally published on my blog.