‘We Made Bold Moves’

On Wednesday night, my wife and I watched In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary about the Apollo missions. The film consists mostly of interviews taken recently with several of the astronauts and video and photos that the astronauts shot on their voyages. I spent the film alternately gasping, cheering, chuckling, and blinking back tears. (Make sure to watch the extra interviews, too.)

Paraphrasing, one of the astronauts says, “It was a time when we made bold moves.”

Watching the videos while listening to the men explain what was going on is riveting: I got some sense of how exciting, how fantastic, and how scary these trips were. These men were basically strapping themselves to a missile inside a glorified tin can.

We enjoyed many of the comments by the astronauts, but our favorite interviews were those of Alan Bean. To take just one humorous example, he says something like, “Some of the tabloids claimed that we staged the whole thing in a hanger in Arizona. Maybe that would have been a good idea.” His joyful spirit is fun to watch. Bean has devoted his later years to painting moonscapes. I rather like many of these paintings; “Hello Universe” says it all. Viewers can flip through all of the paintings.

Elsewhere I might discuss the politics of space travel, but for this blog I’ll look for the religious themes. In my view, the only error of the documentarians was to include near the end gratuitous material about religion and environmentalism. That one of the men found Jesus after his Apollo mission hardly seemed relevant. Yet, obviously these trips were profoundly moving for the astronauts, and I got the sense that they sometimes had a hard time expressing the spiritual dimensions of traveling beyond the earth.

One of the astronauts talked about how, prior to the moon landing, those orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve read passages from Genesis for transmission to earth. One woman sued them for it, which struck me as taking things a bit far.

By coincidence, on Thursday I was reading Joseph Campbell’s Though Art That. He had the following to say about the reading (page 4):

The incongruity was that they were several thousand miles beyond the highest heaven conceived of at the time when the Book of Genesis was written, when such science as there was held the concept of a flat earth. There they were, in one moment remarking on how dry the moon was, and in the next, reading of how the waters above and the waters beneath had been walled off.

One of the most marvelous moments of that contemporary experience was described in stately imagery that just did not fit. The moment deserved a more appropriate religious text.

Though Ayn Rand would have had little patience with Campbell’s Kantian presumptions regarding “the ineffable nature of the divine” (page 17), Rand did write an essay about Apollo 11 that appropriately celebrates the achievement:

The meaning of the sight lay in the fact that when those dark red wings of fire flared open, one knew that one was not looking at a normal occurrence, but at a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence — and one knew also that this cataclysm was planned, unleashed, and controlled by man, that this unimaginable power was ruled by his power and, obediently serving his purpose, was making way for a slender, rising craft. One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human — with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur — that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel — not “How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!” — but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt — this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being — an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.