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Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space flight to and from the Moon has been covered extensively in a raft of books, television programmes and films. A few weeks ago I watched the Apollo 11 film of that name. This is a documentary that features, so the film-makers say, previously unseen footage, and it certainly is a remarkable film. One of the good things about it is that it does not involve any narration: the film and the action do the “talking”. I watched it on a large IMAX screen at London’s Science Museum. I heartily recommend it. I actually found it rather moving. That sequence of when Armstrong takes control of the Lunar Module and flies to the surface, with Aldrin counting out the altitude, knowing they have precious little fuel to spare, is one I can watch over and over. (Armstrong is one of my all-time heroes. The very fact that he conducted himself in such a modest way since the mission ended only reinforces that.)

The space missions of the 1960s were, of course, part of a much bigger set of actions involving the US, former Soviet Union and other select powers. Let there be no doubt: the Moon missions were a big “front” in the Cold War. We libertarians will debate whether all the spending on such a programme was justified (I will come back to this point in a bit) but it strikes me that the success of the Apollo missions were surely a valuable morale booster for the West and for America. It showed that for all the Soviets’ early successes in beating the US in some aspects of space flight, that by the mid to late 60s that edge had gone.

Putting the likes of Armstrong, Aldrin et al up there was a way for the US to poke Moscow in the eye. But it was about much more than that. It appears to me (born in May 1966) the product of a time when governments still had tremendous confidence in technology, as did much of wider society. And yet as we know, the end of the Moon programme coincided with events such as various environmentalist campaigns calling attention to the real/alleged damage Man was doing to the environment; it also overlapped with the Vietnam War, the oil price shock and the challenge to established Western assumptions about energy. And there was the rise of radical feminism and the Civil Rights campaign.

A lot of people have noted how the space programme contrasted with all the tumult and messiness of wider American/Western society at the time. At more or less the time that Armstrong was taking his “giant leap” for Mankind, Jimi Hendrix was playing his version of the Star Spangled Banner at muddy Woodstock (he’d probably be condemned by today’s left for being a reactionary conservative for playing it at all); Charles Manson and his fellow monsters were causing havoc. Several major public figures, such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were murdered. The space programme was, on the other hand, all clean, with white rockets and gleaming craft; it had a focus on scientific precision and a celebration of human efficacy. It was about what Man can do and achieve, given rational focus on a goal. It was also a very technocratic thing, and an example – which is often trotted out by politicians who like big vanity projects – of a big government effort actually working pretty well. (From the moment that JFK gave his speech about the Moon in 1962 it took just eight years to pull that feat off. It takes people longer to make James Bond films these days.) The men (and some women) at NASA looked different from the rock musicians and protesters of the time: whenever I see photos and old films of the chaps at Mission Control, for example, they all have air force-style buzzcuts, narrow dark ties and have names like Dave, Deke and Al. They drive Corvettes , live in small neat homes with pools (this impresses a Brit) and talk with clipped Midwestern or occasionally more gravelly Texan accents. They play golf. Al Shepard even took a golf club up to the Moon. How middle class is that?) They don’t look like Janis Joplin fans and probably could not give a damn about recycling of single-use plastics.

A detailed study of the relationship between the space programme and American political culture, social, economic and environmental developments is therefore an interesting subject. I recently got a copy of Apollo In The Age of Aquarius, by Neil M Maher, (Harvard University Press). He’s Associate Professor of History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University-Newark. The book runs to 360 pages and at least a third of the book is taken up by footnotes and references. I took a chance on ordering this book (pricey at $29.99), and to be honest I came away from reading it only able to give it at most 3 out of 5 stars on an Amazon rating. In the spirit of fairness I’ll list the good stuff first and turn to the problems later on.

Prof. Maher has really done a lot of hard work on this book and he digs out all kinds of references and materials. He explores how, for example, NASA was co-opted (I suspect against the will of some of the top brass at NASA) by HUD, the powerful US housing agency, to use all that scientific know-how to develop things such as affordable housing solutions. There is also a lot about how NASA’s PR had, early on, to defend its very existence from people demanding that such a costly programme should either be closed down or repurposed given all the problems that were going on in the US at the time. He spends a lot of time referring to the newspaper/TV coverage of the programme as it developed.

Prof. Maher also has lots to say about the allegedly sexist nature of the US programme (he contrasts this, in a way I find extraordinarily naïve) with the supposed more egalitarian, pro-women approach of the Russians (as if the Communist Party really cared about freedom and opportunity. For f***s sake). Even so, if you can get past Prof. Maher’s rather obvious Leftism, it is shocking if unsurprising to read the views of NASA bosses and some of the astronauts about women being incapable and unsuited to space flight. Now we know better. There’s no rational reason I can see that a woman cannot be as capable in flying a space craft as a man.

But the downsides of this book are many. In how he handles the sexism issue, for example, he seems to suggest that the dominance of male test pilots as the source of NASA astronauts was just a sort of bad accident of history and that anyway, with so much space flight being controlled from Mission Control rather than the astronauts in the craft, that there was no real need for some gung-ho Chuck Yeager types to be involved. That’s not what actually happened. As we know, on Apollo 11, Armstrong had to use all his background as a military aviator and test pilot to take control of the Lunar Lander and fly to its landing point when the onboard computer overloaded. And the experience he and fellow astronauts gained in thousands of hours of flying meant they developed the coolness under pressure they needed. The problem is that Prof Maher is so keen to push against the idea that being an astronaut should be all about being a square-jawed, tough guy, and that women could do the task, that he overplays his hand. To be fair, he notes (page 159) that women weren’t able to fly high-performance jets and it is only because of later changes to how they are trained that we have got more women astronauts.

The author is also very clearly a full-on Green. For him, the idea that Man’s impact on the Earth is largely negative, to be controlled and regulated by the State, is stated as a given. The critiques of Rachel Carson and the population doomsters such as Paul Erhlich (Julian L. Simon’s work is ignored) are referenced without any sign that they have been challenged and found wanting. And for all his paeans of praise for 60s radicals pushing back at conservative “square” culture, he is remarkably conventional in stating that the State is the best entity to guide space flight. He’s hostile to private spacefaring. The achievements of the likes of Elon Musk in developing reusable rockets, which is hugely important given the economics, don’t register. Nor does he take on board the critiques that those on the radical free market end of the street have made of NASA down the years: the bloated budgets, the blind alley over the Space Shuttle, attempts to throttle private ventures, vanity projects and so on. The idea of entrepreneurs in space appears to disgust him. He’s a bit of a prude.

And for all the extent of his references, he’s also sloppy. For example, in his treatment of Ayn Rand’s famous defence and praise of Apollo 11 because of what she said was its celebration of reason and a sense of adventure, he seems almost unable to process how a person thinks as she does, and then lumps her together as a “conservative” with William F Buckley, founder of National Review. Yet it was that publication which produced a vitriolic attack on Rand for her novel Atlas Shrugged, not least because of her atheism. A more fastidious academic would have noted that. Rand and Buckley may have at times shared similar likes and dislikes in some ways, but they were also very different. This is a problem with academics, one suspects, such as Prof. Maher, in that if you say you are for capitalism and wary of the State, then he puts them all into the box labelled “Right”, and ignores anything else.

These blind spots and prejudices are a pity because I did get some value out of this book and learn a bit about the era of the space programme and all the events in and around it. I doubt I can recommend anyone buy it, though. There is not a single sentence of this book in which the author salutes the terrific achievement of Apollo 11 – he is always looking for a large fly in the ointment, as it were. It seems all a bit small-minded.

I hope that in times to come there will be more studies that take a more balanced view of the controversies. Prof. Maher has at least made a useful foray into the territory.

12 comments to Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

  • neonsnake

    . It takes people longer to make James Bond films these days.


    I sometimes muse that between 1939 and 1942-ish, we managed to build adequate defenses across the British Isles to defend ourselves against invasion.

    Nowadays, it takes longer than that to widen an eight mile stretch of the M1.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Thanks for the review, Johnathan. There’s another book I don’t have to read. 🙂

    There might be some interesting aspects about changes in the attitude to technology over time. The Victorians seem to have been pretty gung-ho on technology — Crystal Palace, steam engines, transoceanic telegraph cables. Maybe what we see in the history books is biased, but technological advances in those days seem to have been celebrated.

    If we come forward to the WWII era, perhaps it was necessity rather than enthusiasm about technology which led to the advances in aircraft, radar, and nuclear energy. As you point out, Johnathan, the post-WWII Space Race was indeed part of that same (fortunately by then less violent) contest. (Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” is still an excellent read on that point).

    Then in the 1970s, without the pressure of a potentially existential competition, technology began to become evil in the minds of certain people — and that view has now become common, even to people who use their mobile phones to post their negative comments about technology on FaceBook while sitting in an air-conditioned Starbucks drinking coffee that came from the other side of the world.

    Strange psychology!

  • James Strong

    According to Andrew Chaikin in ‘A Man on the Noon’ all 6 Apollo moon landings had to be manually flown in the final stages.

    Added to that the docking procedures, two craft coming together and locking, which were carried out a number of times on each lunar mission had to be flown manually.

    Therefore experienced test pilots were the right people to train to be astronauts in the 1960s.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Gavin, absolutely. Victorian-era writers celebrated technological and scientific achievements a good deal; it was a time when certain forward strides were given their full due. All kinds of societies and clubs were formed; biographies of engineers were written and were highly popular (Samuel Smiles, he of Self Help fame, wrote such a book) and so on. Nowadays, any discussion of all this would be immediately hedged with qualifiers such as about Man’s impact on the climate, or whatever. Even when such qualifiers might be valid, it suggests a certain grumpiness and lack of confidence. I noticed that of the recent TV shows and discussions about Apollo, you got people going on about how the thing they really liked was how it reminded us of how precious the Earth is. The feat of going to the Moon and back? Bleh, that was almost incidental.

    It would not also hurt to stand back and marvel at the sheer glory of what human beings can do when they think about it. Instead, we get the “Man must stop messing up the Earth” dirge. It becomes seriously tiresome.

  • decnine

    “…probably could not give a damn about recycling of single-use plastics.”

    I am certain that, if they did give a damn, it would only be after rigorous examination of the facts.

  • Lloyd Martin Hendaye

    Of course, Tranquility Base is a cardboard stage-set reeking of backlights, deus ex machina props, scampering stagehands. How else explain that the Lunar Aliens who greeted Armstrong and Aldrin are never seen or mentioned; that their capital Star City has been erased from panoramic backgrounds; above all, that the Landing Module is manifestly not sitting on the lunar surface but dangling from a poorly rubbed-out skyhook crane?

    To those who ask, “What aliens, what city, what skyhook crane?” we make reply: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Since no-one can prove a negative, who’s to say we’re wrong? In any case, JFK’s chauvinistic self-glorification would better credit Senegal, Zimbabwe, mayhap Bangladesh, Brunei, or Suriname, for their profound socio-cultural/economic contributions to NASA’s enterprise.

  • Mr Ed

    Charles Manson and his fellow monsters were causing havoc

    Charles Manson and his fellow hippies were murdering people.

    There, much more accurate.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Mr Ed, a distinction without a difference.

    Bear in mind that many libertarians like me get thought of as hippies because we are at odds with prevailing opinion.

  • bob sykes

    Reading your comments (someone born in 1966, when I graduated college), I think people who were not adults in the 60’s, or young ones, cannot appreciate what happened.

    First, this was the personal project of John Kennedy, who was a charismatic President, and who’s Moon landing program was truly inspirational. The sheer joy and excitement of the program is hard to describe. At one point, I had seen (on TV) every launch and every recovery of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I lost track sometime during th Shuttle program.

    America’s current so-called space program is a disgusting bad joke. An obscene gesture to those of us who saw the real thing, which was killed to slop the trough of the welfare state.

    The hellish flip side was the Vietnamese War. 2.5 million American boys slogged through that evil.

    To someone of my age, the question is whether today’s America is worth saving. Only the remembered glories and fears of my youth make it so.

  • Paul Marks

    I know the left hate the culture that produced the Apollo programme – indeed the culture that produced all achievement private as well as government.

    What I find baffling, which is why I keep mentioning it, is that Big Business mostly now SUPPORTS this “Social Justice Warrior” attack on traditional society.

    It is as if IBM and the rest of the big companies at the time had said in the 1960s – “Charles Manson – what a role model! He and his associates are people we should back!”

    Indeed it is more than that – now Big Business (the leading Corporations of our time) basically hold “if you criticise the politics of the SJWs we will censor you – and we will have you fired from your job, and we will make it harder and harder for you to have a bank account and have your payments cleared and …….”

    Yes I know that the education system (the schools and universities) have produced generations of people who have gone into Corporations and corrupted them from the inside – but it is still astonishing.

    We live in a world where the leading capitalist corporations (and many of the individual rich) are committed to the destruction (the utter extermination) of the culture upon which capitalism (and everything good) depends.

    The leading thinkers of the Frankfurt School are laughing as they burn in Hell.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Johnathan, thanks very much for the review.

    And especially for the paragraph about Miss R., Apollo 11, and W.F. Buckley. ++ for the link to her article on Apollo 11, which I haven’t read in 40 years at least. (I’m not sure I have a copy of VoR around here, and unfortunately I don’t have the issue of The Objectivist either.)

    I’ll never forget watching the landing with the other members of our Objectivist Study Club (Purdue students mostly) at Jim Davidson’s* house. [We were all rivetted to the TV. My husband and I were 26 … he was working on his doctorate in physics. Most of the others (including Jim, IIRC, who was a little older) were in doctoral engineering programs. (I was working part-time on my Bachelor’s in math.) Jim was a photography nut, and he was always snapping photos of his wife Dottie, who sketched whenever her hands were free. It was a joyous occasion.]

    Jim was the one who gave N.B. the idea of setting up the taped lecture courses:


    “… Jim Davidson, the electrical engineer and inventor who first had the idea of tape recording and distributing lectures on Objectivism….

    “The Jim Davidson I’m talking about wrote only for computer magazines. And he LIVED Objectivism to the end of his too-short life, achieving, to all appearances, in his own moral character what John Galt achieved in his. Being around him was highly inspiring, especially to a novice as I was at the time–later 60s, at Purdue University.”

    (The comment’s in a discussion of good O’ist or O’ist-sh fiction:

    http://forum.objectivismonline.com/index.php?/topic/2155-objectivist-fiction/&page=2 )

    You write,

    “It would not also hurt to stand back and marvel at the sheer glory of what human beings can do when they think about it.”

    The Great Frog knows I agree with you!


    Gavin, interesting point.


    Paul, Well said.


    Going back to Johnathan’s wonderful words I quoted above, I indulge myself by repeating some words of my own. The first part, between the asterisks but not included in the blockquote, is from a comment to which I was responding.


    *“Real life isn’t like a John Wayne movie, where the good guys are faultless and heroic, and the bad guys are pantomime caricatures of evil and stupidity. Socialism is one of the most persistently appealing belief systems of modern times, that millions still follow despite its bloody history. To understand why, you have to understand its appeal.”*

    To fight that, you have to understand the value of and the human need for heroes to look up to. Almost all the “entertainment” that we see around us (and hear as well) if not simply silly (most sitcoms and some really good comedic movies, like “Red” and “Red2”– no one should miss those!), embraces nihilism, says that there are no heroes, not really, because we are all “flawed” (there’s one that gives me hives!) — deeply flawed — and the job of historians and dramatists and writers is to drag out whatever sewers of the soul they can find or make up in real-life heroes, let alone fictional ones. We are encouraged to spit on these people by the many examples that entertainment and histories and biographies give us, that drown us in the flaws of the protagonist or subject. See the TV series “Homeland,” for instance.

    The upshot is that we* all believe that if we’re not living in the Worst of Times, it’s only because we have the positive results of amazing modern technology to show that, after all, the human race has done some wonderful things. –And how much do we hear to the effect that all this technology is Bad, very Bad….

  • Deep Lurker

    The Apollo program was the last hurrah of the old progressives who actually believed in progress. Afterwards they were supplanted by a new left with a new party line of “Learn to live with less, you hate-filled greedy bastards!”

    Now those actually-for-progress progressives had some major flaws. One was a willingness to bulldoze people’s personal plans in favor of their own Big Plans For Society. Another was to seriously underestimate just how poisonous socialism and government regulation is to an economy. But they still favored a better, brighter, more prosperous future in a way the “Learn to live with less!” leftists did not.