Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Apollo 11 (CNN Films, Statement Pictures, Universal, 2019)
First Man (Universal, DreamWorks, Perfect World Pictures, 2018)
Chasing the Moon [episode 1] (Robert Stone Productions, 2019)
Man on the Moon (CBS-TV, aired July 16, 2019)
At the end of Apollo 11, the documentary on the July 21, 1969 landing of human beings on the moon made by CNN Films, released theatrically and then shown on TV on the 50th anniversary of the actual event, one of the three astronauts — it’s not clear which one — is heard on the soundtrack speaking of “mankind’s insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown.”
But if humanity (to use the non-sexist term) has an insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown, you’d never know it from the outcome of the Apollo moon program. After Apollo 11, six more rockets were launched by the U.S. with the intent of putting more men (and yes, they were all men; the U.S. didn’t send a woman into space until 1983, 20 years after the Soviet Union did) on the moon.
Ironically, the only one of these missions that achieved lasting fame was Apollo 13, and that’s because it was the only one that didn’t get to the moon. Instead, a malfunction in the spacecraft made it touch-and-go as to whether the astronauts would even make it back to earth safely, and their heroic struggle to improvise a means to return by using their equipment in ways it wasn’t designed for made the Apollo 13 astronauts worldwide heroes and led to a book by the mission captain, Jim Lovell, called Lost Moon that was eventually turned into the hit film Apollo 13.
The extent to which the heroics of going to the moon in 1969 had turned into something seemingly banal and dull was summed up by a line in the script for Apollo 13. One of the officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls up a news executive at a TV network and asks why they aren’t giving Apollo 13 the wall-to-wall media coverage they gave Apollo 11 — or, indeed, any news coverage all. The network guy responds, “You’ve made going to the moon seem as exciting as going to Pittsburgh.”
A Boy in Love with the Space Program
I was born September 4, 1953, which means I was seven years old when humans first went into space. I had followed the coverage of rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida and gnashed my teeth with frustration that the launches always took place at 7 a.m. Florida time — which meant as a California boy I had to get up by 4 in the morning (on a school night!) to see them “live.” I usually didn’t make it up that early, though I tried.
Nonetheless, I devoured every piece of information I could get on the space program. I remember using my allowance money to buy a couple of paperbacks on it, including one whose “cover boy” was Alan Shepard — technically the first American into space, even though they just shot him up on one of the Army’s old Redstone rockets for what they called a “sub-orbital” flight — meaning that the spacecraft went up across the sky in an arc and then came down again after only 15 minutes. This happened on May 5, 1961, nearly a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — and the first actually to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, something an American didn’t do until John Glenn on February 20, 1962.
I remember getting two books on the actual NASA space program and then buying a third which disappointed me because it was merely a collection of science-fiction stories. I remember giving up on this book because my seven-year-old mind couldn’t make heads or tails of the third story, Henry Kuttner’s “The Iron Standard.” I ran across that story again in a collection of Kuttner’s works I found in the 1990’s and this time found it absolutely brilliant even though I had a hard time with its politics: it’s about a crew of Earth astronauts who land on the planet Venus, bring free-enterprise capitalism and smash the Takomars, the socialist hierarchies that previously ran Venus’s economy.
Later on my mother signed me up for a children’s book club and, among other things, I eagerly ate up Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mike Mars” series. This posited that in addition to Project Mercury, the astronaut program everyone knew about, the U.S. government had set up a second, secret program of younger men called “Project Quicksilver,” and the heroes were a boyish Anglo guy named Mike Sampson — nicknamed “Mike Mars” because his initials spelled out the name of the Red Planet — and a Native American sidekick named Johnny Bluehawk. The villains of the piece(s) were Rod Harger, the spoiled rich brat of a super-wealthy man who was determined that his son would be the first human in space; and Carl Cahoon, a.k.a. Tench, the thug Harger, Sr. hired to sabotage the other astronauts to make that happen.
So when my age was still in single digits I was excited about the prospect of humans going into space, landing on the moon and eventually reaching out to Mars and beyond as anyone else. My attitude began to sour — like a lot of people’s — as the 1960’s ground on and the very fabric of life on Earth seemed to tear in unexpected ways. President John F. Kennedy — who had proudly proclaimed in 1962 America’s commitment “to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely to the earth” — was killed when I was 10 years old, attending a private grade school and was actually in the playground at recess when the announcement came.
I was already a committed supporter of the African-American civil rights movement — thanks almost entirely to my mother, who was highly active in it as a white supporter of Black civil rights until the movement turned in the so-called “Black Power” direction in 1966 and decided they neither needed nor wanted white supporters. I was at the dinner table while my mother and stepfather watched the TV news and argued about civil rights and the Viet Nam War, which I’d already decided by 1965 (the year my mom and my stepfather broke up, largely over their political differences) I was against. I remember having arguments about it in junior high school with my playmates (to the extent I had any — I was a pretty lonely, introverted kid and frequently the victim of bullying) and smiling to myself when we ended up in high school together and they started coming around to the anti-war position.
Radicalized and Disillusioned
Gradually the ferment of the times won me over to what became the orthodox position about space from progressives and Leftists: that the space program was a colossal waste of money and resources that could better be used against poverty, racism and other problems here on Earth. The new, more cynical attitude I and my friends had towards the space program was probably summed up in a line by satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer on his album That Was the Year That Was, in which he said the government was “spending $20 billion of your money to put some clown on the moon.”
Oh, there were times I got excited about it all over again, including the fascinating program a NASA representative gave at our junior high school (the horrible neologism “middle school” hadn’t been coined yet) explaining exactly how the Apollo spacecraft would work, including the division of the actual moon craft into three sections: the “Command Module,” “Service Module” and what was then called the “Lunar Excursion Module,” the only one of the three parts that would actually land on the moon. Later, apparently someone at NASA’s P.R. department thought the name “Lunar Excursion Module” sounded too frivolous and it was shortened simply to “Lunar Module,” but the acronym “LEM” survived as the colloquial name for the craft.
I got excited all over again on the night Apollo 11’s lunar module actually landed on the moon. The first thing that was broadcast about this momentous event hooked my cynicism when a newscaster announced that the first thing the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, had done when they touched down on the moon was “jettison waste material.” “Oh, great,” I thought. “We finally get to the moon, and what’s the first thing we do there? Throw out our garbage!”
Nonetheless, that night I went to the home of a young woman who was leader of our radical high-school group, the Student Party for Self-Direction, which was still meeting though it was summer and school was out. There was a blurry black-and-white TV in the room where we were meeting and, like just about every other TV set in the world, it was tuned to the live coverage of the moon landing and we got to read the epochal chyrons, “LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON” and “LIVE FROM MOON,” as two spacesuit-clad figures walked onto the lunar surface, left the big footprints of their space boots on the moon’s grainy, sandy surface and put up an American flag made of plastic. An ordinary cloth one would not have billowed appropriately because the moon has no atmosphere.
We even sent out for ice cream to the local Baskin-Robbins and got their last supply of “Lunar Cheesecake,” a special flavor for the occasion that was lime-green and, as I recall, didn’t taste very much like cheesecake. (Five years later, when the House Judiciary Committee was debating articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon over his role in the Watergate cover-up, Baskin-Robbins would come up with a similar occasional flavor, “Mmm-Peach-Mint.”) We had the properly cynical attitude towards the achievement we as progressives and radicals were supposed to have — but we were still jazzed enough about the experience not only to watch it on TV but get excited about it.
At least part of the problem was that NASA sold the space program in a way that put the astronauts and everyone else involved on the wrong side of the generational divide. From the very start of the astronaut training program NASA had chosen military test pilots, mostly from the Air Force but some from the Navy as well, as having what author Tom Wolfe later called “the right stuff” to lead the U.S. into space.
As the 1960’s wore on and as the war in Viet Nam seemed to soak up young people’s lives and society’s resources without end and without purpose (novelist Norman Mailer summed up the war’s seeming pointlessness by calling one of his books Why Are We In Viet Nam? even though the plot only indirectly dealt with the war), many young Americans (particularly men like me who were approaching draft age and therefore had to deal with the dilemma of whether to fight it willingly, flee the country or risk prison to resist) developed a resistance to all things associated with the U.S. military.
The extent to which NASA sold itself as exemplar of the “old American values” of patriotism, loyalty and moral certitude was shown dramatically in a film clip of astronaut Frank Borman, who as leader of the Apollo 8 crew had been one of the first humans to orbit the moon even though they didn’t land on it, speaking to an audience of students at a major college. Borman gave a full-throated denunciation of all those horrible student radicals who were challenging their professors, the school administrators and the norms of society as a whole — to the cheers of most of his audience and the boos of a few.
The clip is contained in the third part of the three-part PBS documentary Chasing the Moon, the only one of the four films shown on American TV the week of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 that attempted to show the moon landing in its political context: the high-tension Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union that had animated its beginning and the divisions within America that had undermined support for it by the time it actually happened.
“Just the Facts” — Or the Nuances as Well
“Facts are nothing without their nuance, sir.”
— Allen Ginsberg, poet, testifying at the Chicago conspiracy trial, 1969-1970
During the 50th anniversary week of the Apollo 11 mission — which I had forgotten was actually eight days long since it took over three days each way to get to the moon and back — I got to see four films about it with dramatically different “takes” on Apollo 11 and the abrupt halt to human-staffed space flight just over three years later. Chasing the Moon, a three-part, six-hour documentary written and directed by Robert Stone, was shown on Dutch TV cut into six one-hour segments. Its principal character was Wernher von Braun, whom Tom Lehrer wrote a savagely brilliant song in which he referred to von Braun as “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.”
Von Braun started his career in rocketry in his native Germany. Nazi Germany, to be exact; he ran the experimental German rocket base at Peënemunde which developed two weapons that so impressed Adolf Hitler that by 1944 he thought they would turn the tide of the war and enable Germany to win. One was the V-1, nicknamed the “buzz bomb” by the residents of British cities who were bombed by it. The V-1 was what would now be called a “drone” — an unmanned jet-powered aircraft that flew itself into the ground and blew up, creating an explosion similar to a bomb dropped by a piloted aircraft but without the risk that British anti-aircraft gunners could shoot it down.
The other “vengeance weapon” was the V-2, the world’s first guided missile, which drew on the best rocket technology available to drop warheads on cities (particularly London and the Dutch city of Antwerp). After the war the U.S. and the Soviet Union treated both the V-2 rockets and the staff that had developed them as war booty. Von Braun was one of the leading scientists in the U.S. rocket program, and his research project used captured V-2’s and worked out ways to improve them. Von Braun also thought rockets could be used to launch people into space — an idea he got from fellow German scientist Hermann Oberth, who in 1923 had published a novel called By Rocket Into Planetary Space and five years later served as scientific advisor to director Fritz Lang for Woman on the Moon, a 1928 film that depicted a successful lunar landing and for which Lang, seeking a dramatic way to show the rocket being launched, invented the countdown.
Von Braun became the foremost U.S. rocket scientist and was instrumental in developing the spacecraft used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo human-staffed space flight programs. His goal was to land humans on the planet Mars, and according to some reports he over-designed the Saturn V, the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon, so it would be powerful enough to reach Mars as well. He was also dogged by questions about his Nazi past, particularly whether he had used slave laborers at Peënemunde and had known about the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Tom Lehrer’s song about him directly referenced his role in developing the V-1 and V-2:
“Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.”
Indeed, von Braun became such an American hero that in 1960 a movie was made about him, I Aim at the Stars, directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring German actor Curt Jurgens as von Braun. Not surprisingly, Robert Stone’s Chasing the Moon gives a much more jaundiced version of von Braun, as well as stressing how much the so-called “space race” was a part of the Cold War. Stone’s film notes that, despite making that bold public declaration that the U.S. would commit itself to sending a man to the moon and bringing him back, President Kennedy was actually doubtful about the expense involved.
He was persuaded to stay the course because the Russians were also presumably racing to the moon, and they’d already beaten us at launching the first artificial satellite and putting the first man in orbit around the earth. Whatever the cost, Kennedy’s advisors told him, we had to pursue the moon flight lest we lose yet another heat of the space race to the Russians — and have to face not only the blow to our national prestige but also the possible use of the moon as a military base by which the Russians could attack us on earth.
Sometime in the 1960’s the Russians, quietly and without fanfare, the Russians gave up on sending people to the moon. Chasing the Moon showed that it wasn’t for lack of trying — they actually built a lunar landing vehicle similar to America’s LEM, but it crashed on initial tests. (So did ours, by the way.) So by the time Apollo 11 went up on July 16, it was in a “race” on its own. One of the big reasons the U.S. human spaceflight program petered out after Apollo ran its course was that, with the Russians no longer competing in the “space race,” there were no longer any competitive points to be scored in the overall Cold War by making it to the moon ourselves.
Not Getting in the Way of the Story
While Robert Stone’s six-hour documentary Chasing the Moon attempted to put the U.S. space program in general and the Apollo missions in particular in a perspective steeped in historical and cultural nuance, CNN’s 93-minute Apollo 11 — first released theatrically by CNN Films in association with Universal, then shown on CNN’s TV network on July 21, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — was a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation. Director Todd Douglas Miller made his film almost exclusively from NASA’s official footage of the mission — much of it in brilliant color and crystal clarity, far better than the blurry black-and-white of the images we got “live” — and didn’t saddle his film with a bunch of talking heads explaining the significance of it all. Virtually the only voiceover we got was from Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon, in an interview he gave shortly after he and his crew got back.
About the only filmmaker’s trick Miller used to “goose up” his story and heighten its emotion was the background music by Matt Morton. Using a lot of percussion effects and mostly avoiding theremins, synthesizers and other clichés of movie “space” music, Morton did his job mostly sparingly. Still, there are times — especially when we’re also hearing the recorded voices of the astronauts and others in the crew communicating with each other and Mission Control in Houston, Texas (a site chosen for political reasons to make Texan politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, vice-president under Kennedy and president for five years after the assassination) — when one wishes Morton would just shut up.
Apollo 11 is a movie that offers a window into another time and place. Not only does the computer equipment at Mission Control seem laughably antiquated today — some of the scenes show NASA’s engineers calculating rocket trajectories with slide rules, an analog computing technology which disappeared virtually overnight after the pocket calculator was invented and first marketed — almost all of them smoked like chimneys while they worked. Also, virtually all the Mission Control crew were white men. As the camera pans over Mission Control we see one Black man and one woman.
When CNN showed Apollo 11 on July 21, 2019 they followed up one of the screenings with a mini-documentary on that woman, JoAnn Morgan, who’s quoted on her Wikipedia page as saying she "would remain the only woman there for a long time." Morgan recalled that for her first 15 years with NASA, “I worked in a building where there wasn't a ladies’ restroom. … [I]t was a big day in my book when there was one.” Until then, she explained on the CNN mini-doc, whenever she needed to use the restroom one of the military people who were providing NASA’s security had to stand guard outside the restroom to make sure no male tried to use it while she was in there.
Courageous Hero or Cog in the Machine?
I got to see Apollo 11 twice in two days: once while it was on CNN and once the day before when the person who runs the monthly Mars (http://marsmovieguide.com/) and Vintage Sci-Fi (http://sdvsf.org/) movie screenings in Golden Hill showed it on a double bill with First Man, the 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong. When I first heard that this movie was being made and Ryan Gosling would star as Armstrong, I hailed it as the fulfillment of my wish that after his long string of movies as weirdos — The United States of Leland, Stay, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, The Big Short, La La Land, Blade Runner 2049 — some Hollywood casting director would finally hire Gosling to play someone normal.
Well, yes and no. First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle in a straightforward manner totally unlike the flash and razzle-dazzle of his star-making film La La Land and written by Josh Singer based on a biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen, doesn’t exactly tell the tale of a man to the hero’s mantle born. Gosling’s performance is a matter-of-fact reading of a man whose life was so colorless, and who was so seemingly content to be just another interchangeable cog in NASA’s great machine, Neil Armstrong enters Gosling’s line of weirdos by being almost totally unmoved by doing something that will make his name live in the history books as long as human beings survive.
Neil Armstrong was a U. S. Air Force test pilot — and though he had resigned from the service and was technically a civilian when he flew on Apollo 11, you could take the man out of the Air Force but you couldn’t take the Air Force out of the man. Armstrong’s understated taciturnicity and the whole infrastructure NASA had built to get him and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back made it difficult — though they tried — to cast him in the lone-hero mold of Christopher Columbus and Charles Lindbergh, two historical precedents a lot of people cited at the time.
The Apollo 11 mission was rehearsed for years, on the ground, in the air (among the most grimly amusing moments of First Man are the tests in which Armstrong attempts to fly the lunar module to a successful landing at a test site on Earth — and fails) and even while it was still going on. One of the things I remember about the coverage of Apollo 11 while the astronauts were in space approaching the moon was the long checklist of drills and tests NASA had put them through, including something called “The Sim” — short for “simulation” — two days before the actual landing.
To me, it was yet one more detail undercutting the whole argument that Armstrong and Aldrin were lone heroes risking their lives like Columbus and Lindbergh. The risks to their lives were real, all right — First Man is almost obsessive in depicting the people who died in various test flights and other experiments on the way to getting humans to the moon and back — but “Mission Control,” the huge organization that was backing them up and was in constant contact with them, told a quite different story from the lone-wolf explorer, out in the middle of nowhere with no source for help if anything went wrong.
Not that there weren’t incidents along the way when things did go horribly wrong without anyone being able to help. The most famous one — and it’s the most chilling scene in First Man — dealt with the so-called “plugs-out test” of the first Apollo spacecraft on January 27, 1967. It’s not clear from the film just what the “plugs-out test” was supposed to test for, or why it was called that, but as any student of the U.S. space program will recall, the test was an utter disaster. A spark in the space capsule ignited the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere and flared into a gigantic fire, incinerating the three astronauts aboard — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — as the mission controllers looked on, totally helplessly, from their computer stations in Houston.
Perhaps the strongest and most striking aspect of First Man is how vividly it dramatizes that the road to the moon was paved with corpses, and Neil Armstrong got to be the titular “first man” largely because he survived the disasters that took out the people in line ahead of him for the honor. Writer Singer and director Chazelle gave Armstrong another tragedy, a personal one — the death of his daughter Karen from leukemia at age 2 — and make it his Citizen Kane-style “Rosebud” moment, the event in his life that explains the man he became. In a scene copied almost exactly from the ending of James Cameron’s Titanic, Armstrong even throws his daughter’s I.D. bracelet onto a crevice in the moon just before he leaves.
The proprietor of the Apollo 11 and First Man screening in Golden Hill thought Chazelle and Singer had gone too far in emphasizing Armstrong’s taciturnicity and clear distaste for mixing unnecessarily with other humans. But the real Armstrong was like that, as he revealed in 2005 when 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley was the recipient of one of Armstrong’s rare interviews. Though Armstrong insisted that the famous line he uttered when he first set foot on the moon — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — was his own invention (it always reeked of a Hollywood screenwriter or a NASA publicist to me), throughout the rest of the interview he was his usual aw-shucks, I’m-not-that-special self.
The Neil Armstrong who gave Bradley that interview — rerun on CBS-TV’s special Man on the Moon, aired July 16, 2019 on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s departure (and using the title and some of the footage from a quickie TV special put together by CBS news and narrated by Walter Cronkite shortly after the flight) — was the one Ryan Gosling played in First Man. He has his romantic side — he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are shown dancing in their living room to an odd 1947 lounge-music album called Lunar Rhapsody long before Armstrong makes it to the moon — but he’s mostly content to be a cog in NASA’s great machine, accepting the assignment of being the first man on the moon with neither trepidation nor enthusiasm, but simply out of a grim sense of duty: this is what they’ve told me to do, so I’m doing it.
Like Apollo 11, First Man suffers from a weak musical score — in this case by Chazelle’s collaborator on La La Land, Justin Hurwitz. It doesn’t help that Hurwitz is competing with the great pieces of pre-existing classical music used by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I would rate as the greatest science-fiction film ever made, and arguably the greatest film ever made, period) for similar action. When the crew of the Gemini program (whose name was annoyingly pronounced “Gem-muh-NEE” instead of “Gem-min-EYE”) practice docking two spacecraft together in Earth orbit — a maneuver crucial to the success of the later Apollo missions — whatever Hurwitz came up with seemed lame and banal compared to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube” waltz with which Kubrick scored his space-docking scene. And when Armstrong and Aldrin are flying their lunar module, the Eagle, over the moon’s surface looking for a place to land, Hurwitz’s score seemed to fall far short of Kubrick’s choice, Györgi Ligeti’s hauntingly beautiful “Lux Aeterna.”
So Why Aren’t We Still Going to the Moon?
It’s rather an open question, which these four films do surprisingly little to answer. It appears that Richard Nixon decided to cancel the development of future launch vehicles aimed at continuing the moon flights and then taking people to Mars — perhaps out of a Trump-like jealousy over his dashing, romantic, charismatic and tragically doomed predecessor, John F. Kennedy. It couldn’t have been good for Nixon’s ego that while he placed a live phone call to Neil Armstrong while Armstrong was on the moon and Nixon was in the Oval Office, the President showcased most often in the Apollo 11 coverage was Kennedy via his film clip making the promise, now fulfilled, that before the end of the 1960’s the U.S. would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely.
But I would argue that the bizarre abandonment of the moon program and any efforts to send people farther into space — the only time in human history a nation has planted its flag on a faraway country, continent or heavenly body and then just stopped going there after a mere three years — has to do partly with the way NASA publicized the space program and partly with the disillusionment that fell upon the country after Nixon’s fall from office over Watergate and a new mood that undermined the broad-based political support needed to keep such projects alive and funded.
As I noted above, NASA deliberately pitched the space program as part of the Establishment side in the bitter battles raged between it and the burgeoning youth counter-culture in the 1960’s. The astronauts were picked from the ranks of the U.S. military and in particular from its culture of test pilots, the hard-living, hard-drinking macho men who had broken the sound barrier and flown the X-series planes which got the U.S. to the edge of space. They were presented as having the “right stuff” — in the unforgettable phrase Tom Wolfe coined for the title of his book about the Mercury program — and as being everything to which a red-blooded man with traditional family values should aspire.
In a time of ferment in which Americans in general, and younger Americans in particular, were starting to question traditional gender roles as well as traditional racial hierarchies, the astronauts were also presented as “family men.” Their life partners were deliberately depicted in the media as Stepford wives — faithful, obedient homemakers willing to wait patiently for their men to come home from their dangerous missions while they cooked, cleaned, did laundry and sent the kids off to school. Wolfe’s book describes the Mercury astronauts as considerably less tied down by the marital bonds as the image — he even says there were astronaut groupies in Florida who were trying to bed all seven of the original Mercury program members — but that wasn’t what we were told, or sold, then.
By so resolutely marketing space travel as a military man’s game, an exemplar of the order and discipline of the military way of life, NASA drove a wedge between itself and the younger generation that has usually supplied the world its explorers. NASA presented space as an exclusively military preserve at a time when the U.S. military was embarrassing itself trying as best it could to fulfill the impossible mission the nation’s political leaders had set for it in Viet Nam. The young dreamers, afire with thoughts of a better world, weren’t signing up for the space program; they were figuring out ways to avoid being drafted into an unwinnable war halfway across the world.
The convulsive changes of the 1960’s — civil rights movements, first for African-Americans and then for other people of color, women and Queers; the Viet Nam war; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. —split America in ways that are still being felt today. Much of the appeal of Donald Trump to his base lies in his promise — what he really means by “Make America Great Again” — to wipe out all that nonsense about equality that started in the 1960’s and return to a time when Blacks were still in the back of the bus, women still in the kitchen, Queers still in the closet and the rule of the country by white men was simply taken for granted as a God-given fact.
The disillusionments from the 1960’s and 1970’s — the ignominious end of the Viet Nam war and Nixon’s fall from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal in particular — ironically boosted the fortunes of America’s political Right. They seemed to convince many Americans, particularly older ones upset by the excesses of the counterculture, that government was no longer to be trusted. America settled into a politics dominated largely by recitations of all the things we couldn’t do — end war, end poverty, end hunger, end homelessness, give everyone access to health care.
This led me, in an editorial I wrote in the 1990’s, to say that if the 1980’s had been the “Me Decade” that enshrined selfishness as a virtue and damned political activism as useless and hopeless, the 1990’s were the “No Decade,” in which politicians and pundits repeatedly said, “You can’t … ” to anyone, in or out of government, who expressed a hope that we could mobilize ourselves collectively and use government to solve any of our major social problems. The cold, clammy rhetoric of politicians from both sides of the partisan divide — notably Bill Clinton’s response to becoming the first Democratic President to lose control of Congress in 40 years, which was to join the Republicans in saying, “The era of Big Government is over” — seemed to relegate big projects like exploring the moon and reaching out to Mars to the province of dreamers and science-fiction writers again.
Instead of vehicles of exploration, the U.S. space program became essentially a trucking service. Instead of building a spaceship to take us back to the moon and onward to Mars, the U.S. built the space shuttle, a craft whose purpose was as prosaic as its name. While thoughts of exploring and colonizing the planets fell by the wayside, private industry had developed communications networks based on so-called “geosynchronous satellites” (an idea first thought up by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) that would always be over the same part of Earth no matter where both Earth and the satellite were in space at the moment. The space shuttle’s main task became to deliver such satellites and place them in those spatial sweet spots more cheaply than launching them one at a time on single-use rockets.
Not that presidents since Nixon haven’t occasionally talked about building a new generation of spacecraft and taking humans to Mars. George W. Bush called for it. So did Barack Obama. So has Donald Trump, though his main purpose seems to be to create a Mars mission that will maintain NASA’s existence while he ends its other major program: measuring changes in the earth’s weather patterns and thereby documenting that human beings are changing the climate despite Trump’s dogged and unshakeable belief that they aren’t. Unlike John Kennedy with the moon program, none of the recent presidents who have called for either a U.S. return to the moon or a mission to Mars have expended any political capital on making it happen.
This has led a lot of science-fiction fans and supporters of planetary exploration to hope that the private sector will step in and take over. It’s essentially the plot of the 1950 movie Destination Moon, based on the writings of Right-wing science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, in which an industrialist persuades the CEO’s of major corporations to bankroll a moon mission to make sure that unspecified “enemies” (which in a 1950 movie could only have meant the Soviet Union) don’t get to the moon first and use it as a military base against us.
More recently, the oddball National Geographic production Mars — a TV series which combines a talking-heads documentary on the potential for a human mission to Mars in the present day and a fictional account of such a mission that stretches out over decades, starting in the 2030’s — has presented one super-capitalist in particular, Elon Musk, as the potential savior of space exploration. The hagiographic depiction of Musk in this film, and at science-fiction conventions where his name is mentioned, contrasts strongly with news of the real Musk, a Trump-style B.S. artist whose companies are constantly skating the thin edge of bankruptcy and never quite delivering the super-technologies he keeps promising. Indeed, Musk has been threatened with prosecution so often by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the misleading (to put it politely) claims he’s made to his company’s shareholders I’ve joked that if he goes to Mars it will be as a fugitive from U.S. justice.
There’s certainly a history of private companies funding programs of exploration in the hope of turning a profit. Most of the British settlements in North America that ultimately became the first United States were bankrolled by private entrepreneurs who hoped they’d make money on exports of grain and other produce from the New World. India was conquered in the 18th century not by the British government but by the British East India Company, which ruled it for a century before officially turning it over to the British state and was even more repressive than the British colonial officials sent to run it after the 19th century handover. King Leopold II of Belgium colonized the Congo not on behalf of the Belgian state but as his personal property, seeking to exploit the Congo’s mineral resources for his own enrichment and enslaving the natives in the process.
But it’s hard to imagine a private company — or even a consortium of them — raising the massive amounts of money it would take to go back to the Moon, let alone to go to Mars, for the highly speculative chances that such missions would ultimately be profitable. This is especially true in the modern era of so-called “activist investors,” who don’t care about the long-term health of the business they buy into. All they’re interested in is the value of their own shareholdings as measured by how the stock price is doing. If a company can be worth more to its shareholders divided into bits and pieces, with its assets used as leverage for loans and its employees laid off en masse, that’s what they will do with it. In a global economy that has turned capitalism itself into a giant speculative game for the 0.01 percent, the idea that one or more corporations might commit to something as chancy as a mission to other planets is preposterous.
So we haven’t been back to the moon, we haven’t gone to Mars, and given the current state of the economy we’re not likely to. Indeed, the next big project the human race will have to undertake is ensuring its actual survival on Earth, given the ongoing assault on the climate and our own planet’s ability to support us long-term. Progressives have called for a “Green New Deal” and compared it to the Manhattan Project that devised the first nuclear weapon, or the Apollo moon project, but it’s considerably harder to sell this effort because it has no readily definable end point. The Manhattan Project devised a usable atomic bomb and dropped it on two Japanese cities at the end of World War II. Apollo 11 landed two people on the moon and brought them safely to earth.The Green New Deal doesn’t have such a readily definable endpoint — just a bunch of boring-sounding statistics about parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also has virtually all the major economic players in the world, both public and private, against it. The ruling class we have today, with its short-sighted obsession with their investments’ stock price the next quarter, won’t allow a Green New Deal to come to fruition, especially since in order to succeed it will have to abolish a lot of the habits of late industrial society that have brought the Earth to the brink of no longer being able to sustain human life. Future generations aren’t going to be able to dream about humans living and prospering on other planets; they’re far more likely to engage in a desperate but losing battle to stay alive on this one.