50 years ago, we walked on the moon but we’re still not sure why
A NEW DOCUMENTARY COVERS five hot days in July, 1969, when the United States sent three men to the moon. The film, “Apollo 11,” uses footage from the time — no talking heads, no explainers, no context.
It covers the sweeping narrative of those few days, from the countdown to launch, to the lunar landing, to the reading of the plaque left behind, inscribed: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in the awesomeness of the mission.
Yet I also found myself emotionally overwhelmed, not just because I was witnessing the once unimaginable become real, but because I began to see how the entire effort was a kind of madness.
Part of me wanted to make it stop.
See, I was born that summer, too. I was one of the babies who came screaming into the post-moonwalk world. I appeared on the scene just 11 days after those miraculous, thrilling televised moments. (Admittedly, the lunar landing was a tough act to follow. )
But until I watched the film, I never felt much of a personal connection to that event. I’d always regarded it as something that shared space with my own history, more coincidental than meaningful.
This July, however, the Apollo 11 mission and I will both turn 50. We will be five decades old, half a century. That begs for some kind of mutual reckoning.
And that’s why, watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to us. What happened to the America that begat me, and the 100 million Americans who tuned in over those few steamy July days to watch a rocket pierce the Earth’s atmosphere in a fiery blast, propelled by the controlled burn of ungodly amounts of hydrogen? Hydrogen which, while awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral, steamed from the valves along the shaft of the white rocket like pent-up rage.
Countless dollars were spent to construct that rocket and the huge steel armature that cradled it. Countless calculations were made to determine how many revolutions around the Earth it would take to slingshot Apollo 11 into space at 25,000 miles per hour toward that far off pockmarked, but otherwise unadulterated, silent and strange place.
The moon landing also relied on an unholy alliance between NASA and former Nazi rocket scientists who, as World War II closed, found themselves disturbingly close to developing weapons of mass destruction for Hitler. Only the chaos and mismanagement of the late Third Reich foiled their ambitions. This isn’t mentioned in the film.
Those same scientists agreed to shift their allegiances to us. Rockets, pointed in a different direction, became ostensible agents of peace.
Fifty years later, this is where we are: On the moon, 238,900 miles away, still stand the tattered remains of a world power emboldened by unprecedented wealth and ingenuity that, left alone to spend its resources any way it wished, shot billions of dollars into space.
“Apollo 11” captures in lush analog tones the one moment in our history when scientists, designers, researchers, politicians, and American taxpayers united to achieve a single, crazy folly: to tread space boots into the soft moon dust and leave permanent marks on that place.
Which is why, on the anniversary of the landing, “Apollo 11” feels like a cautionary tale. It shows what happens when we indulge in the ambitions of men who are divorced from the problems facing humankind. A certain kind of man — the perfect film hero — a stoic American, and a white one, with a buzz cut and a clutch of blond children waiting for daddy at home with their mothers sheathed in brightly colored, neatly tailored rayon dresses.
IN 1969, THE film suggests, all of America hummed with the conviction that landing on the moon first would somehow reorganize the world in our favor, culminating the American century. One could see the landing as an extravagant PR pitch, a hugely expensive declaration that the planet’s first global superpower had the will and can-do attitude to achieve the unthinkable.
And so the US spent its boundless energy conquering the moon even as it relentlessly bombed Vietnam, even as it set up cooperative dictatorships around the globe, even as it trespassed into peaceful Cambodia which would, as a result of our secret war, devour itself. That year, a paranoid America thrust itself into every sphere and blasted perceived foes to bits.
Watching the sunburned families camped out on the Florida beach a mile across the bay from the launch site, squinting into the distance at the rocket, I thought about how they were, in a way, witnesses to an end.
They were America’s new middle class, children of the Great Depression, many of them enriched by a G.I. Bill-sponsored education and federally subsidized housing, beneficiaries of strong labor unions and manufacturing zeal. They packed their kids in station wagons and drove down American highways, all the way to Cape Canaveral, to eat sandwiches and shade their eyes from the sun.
When that rocket left the ground in an awesome and prolonged explosion, it burned up the best of them with it. In that moment, we had the resources and wealth to do literally anything on Earth. Instead, we turned our acetate sunglasses to the sky.
A FEW YEARS AGO, MIT Tech Review ran a cover featuring a closeup of Buzz Aldrin’s face. Damaged and distorted from alcoholism, lit unnaturally white, it could have been the surface of the moon itself. Below him read the quote: “You promised me Mars colonies. Instead I got Facebook.”
I thought a lot about that ancient Buzz while watching 1969 Buzz. He spent much of his post-moon life on a self-destructive bender. Was Buzz just an adrenaline junky who had achieved the ultimate rush from which he would struggle to recover? Or was Buzz the one astronaut sensitive enough to detect that some sacred covenant between man and humanity, Earth and the heavens, had been irrevocably violated that summer?
When you’ve gone that far, when you’ve seen the horror of true darkness, when you understand the Earth as a small orb in the context of the larger universe, when you’ve seen the forsaken desert of the lunar surface up close, defenseless and defiled by a thousand meteors, maybe you come home to Earth and have a drink. Or two.
AYBE NOW IS a good time to question the true endgame of wealth and ambition. I’ve heard talk among billionaires that the moon might someday become a hub for interplanetary space-mining and industry; Earth would then be free to become exclusively residential, a place for life, not destruction. An alternate view suggests that the richest of the rich view space travel as an escape plan from a hopelessly wrecked Earth.
Fifty years ago, just getting to the moon was enough. Buzz and Neil scooped up the dust and shoved it in their pockets, climbed back into Eagle, and slingshotted themselves back to Earth, splashing down in a rough and windy Atlantic. They were welcomed by the whoosh whoosh of military helicopters which carried them to a US Navy aircraft carrier where President Nixon watched approvingly from a high deck.
“Apollo 11” showed me that I was born when white men were everywhere, running the world with their buzz cuts and cigarettes and buttoned down shirts with eyes fixed like lasers on the moon.
They made Faustian deals with Nazis and dictators and sent Agent Orange across the globe to destroy jungles, birds, animals, and insects in Asia.
And they walked on the moon and spoke of peace.