Today is the 38th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The space program was the great enthusiasm of my boyhood, and it was watching the events of July 20, 1969 that awakened that enthusiasm. Back then the meaning of the first moon landing seemed obvious: it was an early victory in humanity’s conquest of space. Perhaps that conquest will eventually resume, and Apollo’s promise will be redeemed.
Now, however, the meaning of Apollo looks different: from our current vantage point, it looks like the high water mark of technocracy. Over the course of the twentieth century, the dream of space travel waxed together with the dream of central planning and social engineering. An early visionary of the final frontier was the Fabian socialist H. G. Wells; another was the Russian rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who ended his life as a committed communist. Rocketry advanced first under the Nazis, then under the Soviets. Krushchev pushed forward after Sputnik with an ambitious space program in the belief that the Space Age would herald the transition to true communism. Which, in turn, provoked a response from the New Frontier/Great Society technocracy of the “best and brightest,” culminating in the landing at Tranquility Base.
By the time of Apollo’s triumph, however, the tide had already turned. Krushchev had been ousted five years earlier, his fantasies of the communist millennium replaced by Brezhnev’s disillusioned corruption. The New Frontier had ended in horror; the Great Society, in tragic failure. A few weeks after Apollo 11, the counterculture’s rebellion against technocracy peaked at Woodstock.
As Cold War rivalry cooled and the technocratic vision lost its hold on the imagination, the Space Age fizzled. The gleaming future gave way to rust and ruin, as evidenced in the photo at the top of this post. The picture is of Launch Pad 34 at the Kennedy Space Center, site of the Apollo 1 fire and the launch of the first successful Apollo mission, Apollo 7. The picture was taken 10 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire.
But the dream of space has survived the demise of its technocratic host. A new era of private spaceflight may now be starting, funded primarily by fortunes created by the Internet revolution. And what a wonderful twist that is. Spaceflight’s founding era rose and fell with the vision of technology as an instrument of top-down control. How wonderful if its rebirth can be midwifed by the vision of technology as an instrument of personal liberation.
Here is a video clip of the moon landing: