The Gift of the Apollo 11 Story

E​very writer with even the most tenuous connection to science has been writing about the moon landing over the past week. As it happens, LightSail2 has delayed unfurling its sails and there have been no earth shaking developments in cosmology in the past week. Under the circumstances, we thought we would join in too, but perhaps from a different angle.

We aren’t scientists here, and our interest in cosmology comes more from a cultural perspective. As we have noted in earlier posts, every culture has a cosmology. We all gaze at the night sky and wonder what it all means. We all draw connections between what we see in the heavens and how it affects our lives here on earth. We speculate about all that, and we tell each other stories to give it meaning.

Science has taught us to stop relying on speculation and stick to facts and evidence. That has taken us far. In the past 100 years, we have learned more about the cosmos than in the previous 10,000. Based on the knowledge that science has generated, we can assure each other that our current understanding of the universe is based on what Professor Michael Roth is fond of calling “the really real”.

Yet, old habits die hard and our need to find meaning in stories hasn’t changed. That’s where Apollo 11 comes in. President Kennedy challenged his country to put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the 1960s. In justifying it, he said “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

He didn’t mention science. He didn’t mention research and development. He didn’t mention national prestige. He didn’t mention the Cold War and the intense rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. We’re sure those were all considerations. But, no, Kennedy had set himself and the country a quest–what Joseph Campbell has taught us all to call a “hero’s journey”.

The astronauts were classic heroes. They were the flower of their generation. Becoming an astronaut meant going through the most rigorous screening imaginable. Their average age was 38. They were fit and rugged, but they were also accomplished renaissance men with backgrounds in a range of fields. They were accomplished pilots but also were well versed in the sciences.

Astronauts were highly intelligent. Their temperaments were as cool as ice water, yet they were likeable. They were loyal, trustworthy and competent like adult versions of boy scouts. NASA made every effort to cultivate that image, but it didn’t have to. The story was close enough to the truth without embellishment. Tom Wolfe’s book title has become a cliche but cliches are rooted in truths. They had “the right stuff”.

And so, our heroes went on a quest for the rest of us. And that quest was, to lean on another cliche, a perilous journey. That’s how our minds naturally took it in. Of course, Apollo was actually more of a program with a series of projects under it. The space program was a model of the new techniques of scientific management. And if project management techniques didn’t exist yet, NASA went ahead and invented them. Today, when managers talk about a major corporate initiative, they call it a “moon shot”.

We were focused on the thirty-three astronauts. To be honest, our focus centred on the three who flew in Apollo 11. In fact, if most readers were asked to name them, most would say “Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and…who was the third guy?” The third guy, who was called the Command Module Pilot, was Mike Collins. But every astronaut was a hero. Anyone in a space suit was like anyone in a suit of Armour. They were our champions.

Like all quests, there were major setbacks. Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in an accident before any Apollo mission had left the ground. Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise came close to suffering a similar fate when Apollo 13 malfunctioned. In some ways, the Apollo 13 crew are remembered as the biggest heroes of them all.

They failed in their quest, but they overcame all obstacles and returned home, having learned and taught us all valuable lessons in crisis management and coolness under pressure. They disliked being called heroes. The Apollo 13 crew insisted that they were simply doing what they were trained to do and that the real heroes were in Mission Control on the ground. Which, of course, is the story that we expect our heroes to tell us.

The Apollo program gave us practical results. It won national prestige and pride for the United States. It didn’t end the Cold War, but it made a clear statement. For example, when Andrei Sakharov and two colleagues wrote an open letter calling on the Soviet Union to become more democratic, he used the moon landing as an example of what free societies can achieve.

Apollo was a research and development incubator. The first missions that orbited the earth took photographs that would inspire the LandSat program. The Johnson Space Centre led the way toward today’s remote sensing technology. Observations from the moon’s geology help scientists better understand how the earth works. All sorts of innovations, from transistors to freeze-dried foods to new metal alloys came from that effort.

But we’d like to suggest that the most important thing that Apollo gave us was a story. We need new stories in the context of our bewildering new knowledge of the world. Science is the setting for our stories now. Our heroes must be scientific to conform with that. That’s what Neil Armstrong may have meant when he said “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

And it’s why we are all telling our versions of that story fifty years on. 

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