Read: Why land on the moon?
The distance between the official Apollo narrative and Lewis’s reading is worth contemplating as we approach the moon landing’s 50th anniversary. Not because one is more persuasive than the other, but because it reminds us to resist the seductions of universalist rhetoric, even when we discuss the exploration of the universe. Apollo 11 means different things to different people. At The Atlantic, we intend to mark its anniversary by surfacing as many of those meanings as possible.
It must, for instance, mean something that the first visit to the moon was motivated in part by martial concerns, and achieved with no small help from ex-Nazis. It must mean something that the moon landing was so aggressively propagandized, at home and abroad, where precious lunar rocks were doled out, country by country, to cast a “moonglow” effect on the Nixon Doctrine. It must mean something that only 12 humans have walked, laughed, and even danced on the lunar surface, and all were white men.
We do not pretend to be the first to make these points. “I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon,” wrote the black poet Gil Scott-Heron, all the way back in 1970, mere months after the Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.
There is, likewise, an extensive literature concerning American masculinity and the figure of the astronaut, to say nothing of the computer programmer. The recent documentary Apollo 11 features a striking image of JoAnn Morgan, the lone woman in the high modernist monoculture of NASA’s Mission Control. Morgan’s brilliant pink lipstick stands out against a sea of white short-sleeved shirts and crew cuts. She seems like a visitor from the future, and in a way she was.
Morgan spoke with Marina Koren, The Atlantic’s space writer, for one of several pieces that will bring to life potent individual experiences of the moon landing. On launch day, we’ll publish an excerpt from Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer’s literary account of Apollo 11. Like Lewis, Mailer viewed Apollo with spiritual suspicion, but ignition left him awestruck.
“Two horns of orange fire burst like genies from the base of the rocket,” he wrote of the Saturn V. “White as a ghost, white as Melville’s Moby Dick … this slim, angelic, mysterious ship of stages rose without sound out of its incarnation of flame and began to ascend slowly into the sky … then it came … the ear-splitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once … the thunderous murmur of Niagras of flame … an apocalyptic fury of sound.”
Read: “A work of art designed by the devil”
We’ll follow that slim, angelic, ship of stages out of the atmosphere and into lunar orbit, where we’ll hear from Michael Collins, Apollo 11’s often forgotten third astronaut. After dispatching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface, Collins whirled around the moon in a tiny, gossamer bubble of technology for nearly a day, the most isolated man in all the cosmos. In their waning years, the Apollo astronauts now face a new kind of loneliness, as the last of a peculiar tribe formed by a truly rarefied set of experiences. We’ll ask what it will mean if and when the Earth is once again without moonwalkers.