Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11
On two sweltering summer nights last July, an estimated half a million people gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing with a spectacular multimedia presentation involving a life-sized Saturn V rocket projected on the Washington Monument’s east side. I was one of those tens of thousands who assembled on the Mall on the night of July 19 to catch the second of three showings. Even though the sun had slipped below the horizon some two hours prior to the 10:30PM showing, my fellow congregants and I were still drenched with sweat from the still-high heat and oppressive humidity. These stifling conditions didn’t deter any of us from showing up to witness a unique, likely once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The day of the actual anniversary, July 20, proved equally suffocating weather-wise. But it still didn’t stop me and others from attending festivities on the Mall or waiting in line to get into the National Air and Space Museum for a night of celebrations amidst the relics of the space age. As the exact moment of when humanity took its first steps on another world approached, people thronged the museum’s central Milestones of Flight Hall. A collection of balloons strung together to resemble a Moon boot hung from the ceiling, slowly descending to the floor in sync with Neil Armstrong’s first small step onto the grey powder of the Sea of Tranquility.
It’d be a mistake to see these celebrations as just a commemoration of a single and singular historical event. They were that, but they were also something more: the sort of shared, inspirational experience that’s uncommon in this day and age. These festivities didn’t just mark the precise time and date that the first humans walked on the Moon, they testified to the fact that the Apollo Moon landings still fire America’s national imagination - and humanity’s as well. Indeed, crowds for the Washington Monument show were triple what the organizers at the National Air and Space Museum expected despite heat warnings from the National Weather Service. This tremendous public response testifies the fact that Apollo no longer exists merely as history; it has slipped into the rarefied air of myth and legend.
Much of it has to do with the passage of time. As technology advanced and slide rules gave way to smartphones and artificial intelligence, Apollo became all the more impressive an achievement. In recent years and decades, moreover, we’ve become accustomed - or inured - to holding powerful computers in the palms of our hands. Ordinary household computers, for instance, can now easily simulate the once cutting-edge operations performed by Apollo Guidance Computer.
NASA engineers, administrators, and astronauts made Apollo happen without the sort of technology we take for granted today. Without Apollo, however, information technology systems - in particular, the transition from computers relying on vacuum tubes to those running on much faster and more compact integrated circuits - may not have developed at the speed or scale it did. As a matter of fact, demand from Apollo accounted for around 60 percent of all integrated circuits made in the United States from 1962 to 1967. Thanks in large part to Apollo, the price of semiconductor chips fell from $1,000 a piece at the start of the 1960s to just $15 per chip by the time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins blasted off for the Moon at the end of the decade.
Over the decades, moreover, various myths and legends accreted accreted around Apollo and the early American space program in general. Regardless of their veracity - and I once witnessed John Glenn vigorously defend the honor of his fellow Mercury astronauts against their portrayal by Tom Wolfe - books like The Right Stuff and films like Apollo 13 built a popular mythology that surrounds NASA and the early American space program to this day. The fact that phrases like “the right stuff” and “Houston, we have a problem” have slipped into our national vernacular attests to this legendary status. Even fictional presentations like The Martian do their fair share to contribute to this mythology; what else is The Martian but Apollo 13 on Mars?
More fundamentally, though, the accretion of legends around Apollo tells us that we haven’t done anything nearly as impressive either as a nation or a species since. For all their practical benefits, the technological achievements of the post-Apollo decades ring hollow by comparison. Smartphones and social media, ever-greater computing power and the Internet have all proven useful economically if not necessarily advantageous to society as a whole. These technologies do not provoke the same sense of wonder that even images beamed down the International Space Station still do, and any appreciation of wider societal progress we may have derived from these technologies gets lost amidst the gnawing suspicion they have done more harm than good.
If the passage of time gives us a deeper perspective on Apollo, Apollo itself continues to give us all a new perspective on our own home planet and humanity’s place in the cosmos. This shift in perspective resembles nothing so much has the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical exercises christened “the view from above” by the French scholar Pierre Hadot in more recent times. The ancient Stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, for one used the view from above repeatedly in his Meditations, at one point reminding himself that“the Earth in its entirety is merely a point in space, and how small is this corner of it in which we have our dwelling” (4.3).
Marcus and other ancient philosophical practitioners used the view from above to take a cosmic perspective and reflect on the ultimate transience and impermanence of all things - including their own lives. While they had to rely on their own imaginations to contemplate this perspective, however, Apollo provided humanity writ large with a similar perspective on our place in the universe. Images like Earthrise (shot by the crew of Apollo 8) and the Blue Marble (captured by Apollo 17) remain as breathtaking as the days they were taken in 1968 and 1972. Once presented with the sight of a fragile blue orb hanging in the vastness and vacuum of space by Apollo, it became impossible for humanity to look at our home the same way we once did.
The fact that actual human beings traveled to and set foot on another world added even more to this perspective shift. From the Pale Blue Dot portrait of Earth taken by Voyager 1 some four billion miles away to the stunning panoramas routinely relayed down by the Hubble Space Telescope, our robotic explorers have certainly given us their own set of awe-inspiring images,. Impressive as these images are, however, these robotic explorers and orbiting observatories that take them cannot imbue their images with the same sense of shared experience that astronauts - fellow human beings, for all their flaws and limitations - can. Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins described leaving Earth orbit, for instance, as “a totally different sensation than being in the race track of an earth orbit. I am conscious of the distance this time, not speed, and distance away from home” (p. 380). It’s hard for a robot, however well-programmed, to convey that impression back to those of us back home on Earth.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Apollo was as much a massive, publicly-funded philosophical exercise as anything else. But it was the active involvement of human beings that transformed this already-impressive feat of science and technology into a Promethean achievement worthy of legend. Apollo showed America at its very best, and expanded our horizons as both a nation and as a species. The fact that Apollo realized our national and human aspirations in such a spectacular way is a major reason why it remains lodged in our national consciousness to this day.
On a darker and more ominous note, however, Apollo’s mythological status reflects a deepening disillusionment with the digital revolution it helped spark. There’s no doubt that information technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the five decades since Apollo 11 touched down on the lunar surface. Yet that same explosive growth of information technology and computer networks in recent years and decades hasn’t yielded the same sort of intangible societal benefits or new perspectives on humanity’s place in the universe that Apollo did. While Apollo still fires our imaginations, we’ve come to surmise that our contemporary digital era has merely made our lives more convenient at too high a cost.
Indeed, most of us benefit far more from information technology in our everyday lives than we did from sending astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s. Though the Internet as we know it barely existed a quarter century ago and smartphones have only been around less than half as long, our society has grown so dependent on these technologies that it’s hard to imagine our daily existence without them and the services they provide. But as convenient as they’ve made our lives, information technology and computer networks have also conjured up a pervasive atmosphere of perpetual anxiety, interpersonal distrust, and foreboding about the future that narrows our national horizons and eats away at the basic fabric of our society like an acid. In the end, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the digital revolution has served to fuel our worst impulses and instincts rather than aiding the better angels of our nature.
That’s certainly the fear that’s been expressed in popular culture, where an ambience of pessimism and cynicism has shadowed information technology and computer networks for decades. The contrast between Star Trek’s relentless confidence in the future - or even the more tempered optimism of the Mass Effect video game series - and the digital despair of countless cyber-dystopias ranging from Snow Crash to The Matrix, for instance, could not be more stark. A general sense of digital dread permeates the popular culture of the digital era, made worse by repeated and often overwrought alarms raised by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk about the allegedly existential threat posed by the ultimate digital technology: artificial intelligence.
AI fear-mongering aside, perhaps the real reason Apollo still looms so large today is that it was a public achievement all Americans had a part in. Where information technology and computer networks increasingly compartmentalize society and stoke division, everyone could partake in a great national and human adventure to land astronauts on the Moon. The irony here is that billionaire tech giants like Musk and Jeff Bezos eagerly claim the mantle of Apollo for their own private fantasies of space colonization despite the fact that (excellent PR notwithstanding) they do not come anywhere close to constituting the sort of grand public enterprise that Apollo did - and still does, even in the ever more fragmented society in which we all live.
That’s the ultimate reason why Apollo has become a myth and legend today; in a very real sense, Apollo took us all to the Moon. Apollo not only served to measure the best of America’s own national energies and skills, it shifted humanity’s overall perspective on itself and its place in the cosmos. It represented the triumph of national imagination and purpose toward an end that benefited not just the United States, but humanity as a whole. In this day and age, however, it seems impossible to many of us that the United States or the world write large could even do such a thing. So with each passing year, Apollo becomes more and more a myth and legend: a story we tell ourselves of what we could once do but no longer can.