What Will the Moon Landing Mean to the Future?

Nearly 50 years after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the lunar surface, it’s clear that Apollo 11 will haunt the human imagination for a long time to come.

NASA / Newsmakers / Getty
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission, 50 years later.

Shortly before his death in 1963, the writer and theologian C. S. Lewis wrote a speculative essay about the spiritual consequences of Project Apollo, the just-commenced mission to land human beings on the moon. In the common telling, Project Apollo is a pure triumph, its ambitions and execution framed in universalist terms, its meaning singular and plain to an implied “us.” We go to the moon because it is hard and because it is there.

Even America’s space-race rivals adopted this narrative. After the first American astronauts flew around the moon’s far side, the Kremlin released a statement congratulating the U.S. for transcending “the limits of a national achievement,” marking a new “stage in the development of the universal culture of Earthmen.”

Lewis, for his part, did not see Project Apollo as an obvious step forward in our cosmic development. He saw it as a moral regression. To ride on a rocket tip to the “silver planet” of Artemis and Diana was an obscene act, a penetration of the celestial sphere that rightly divided the terrestrial from the divine. Profound spiritual trauma would surely follow in its wake. “The moon of the myths, the poets, the lovers will have been taken from us forever,” Lewis wrote. “He who first reaches it steals something from us all.”

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.”

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.

We’ll consider the moon landing as an engineering feat, one that forever changed the vocabulary, metaphors, and storytelling around technology. We’ll interpret it as a media event. In its magnitude as a televised spectacle, the Apollo telecast is rivaled only by 9/11. What does it mean that both have inspired bizarrely durable conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy is, of course, its own kind of mythos, which brings us back to C. S. Lewis and his mistaken belief that Project Apollo would de-enchant the moon. If anything, Apollo re-enchanted the moon. Science had slowly scrubbed the silver planet of the supernatural, with ever more detailed images of its sterile, pocked face. Visitation by humans lent the moon a new glow of destiny, no matter your view of the future.

If you think our species will one day venture out into the stars, the moon becomes the first stepping stone of a cosmic journey. If you think the stars are folly and Earth is our only home, the moon becomes a perch from which to gaze back at the blue planet, to receive, in a single aesthetic experience, all the distilled wisdom of ecology. If Apollo is a new Tower of Babel, an act of extreme hubris preceding a crash, well, that too is a mythos. You could see its story being passed down through whatever threadbare cultures survive our return to a bleak, pre-civilized state, a new Icarus fable with the moon standing in for the sun. Whatever our fate, the moon landing will likely haunt the human imagination for a long time to come, its meanings always plural and in flux.