We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Challenger disaster seen through Guardian spectacles

Some chick called Emma Brockes writes in the Guardian, “The Challenger disaster: we can’t say we weren’t warned about American hubris”.

The article itself will add nothing to your understanding of how the space shuttle came to break apart soon after launch. I might give the Netflix documentary a chance, despite the Guardian‘s description of it as “a timely meditation on the perils of exceptionalism”. It seems harsh to condemn anything on the basis of what the Guardian says about it, especially since the Guardian article in question contained incoherent sentences like the second one in this quote:

In a US news report about the space programme, a TV host says, with amazement, that the newest Nasa recruits include, “two blacks, an oriental, and six women”. (One of them, Sally Ride, is shown being asked by a journalist whether, when she tells a man she’s an astronaut, he believes her.)

Got that? Sally Ride told a male journalist that she was an astronaut. Then he (the journalist) asked her (the astronaut) whether he believed her.

[Edit: Correction to the above! And apology to Ms Brockes, in the unlikely event that she ever reads this. Commenter “Jim” pointed out that the sentence I quoted makes perfect sense if you see the final “he” as not referring to the male journalist but to the general category of men who Sally Ride might tell that she is an astronaut.

Edit to the Edit: Niall Kilmartin made the same point as Jim did but in such a gentlemanly fashion that I did not quite get it. I would happily delete this entire section in embarrassment, but my rule for blogging is that the very things you want to stealth-edit most are those you should not touch.]

So much for the article. However the readers’ comments (the Graun made the mistake of allowing them) are rather good. The most recommended comment is by “chunkychips”:

This is a bizarre article. We’re supposed to believe that a NASA cockup and some dude who approved the launch of the space shuttle 30 odd years ago based on the data available to him at the time is an example of American exceptionalism?? What?

I’m afraid I’m just left with the image of a bitter writer watching the documentary and a little light goes off in her head “oooh, I could make a massive and ludicrous leap into condemning a country of 300 odd million people for ever daring to try”.

I’m so sick of the drip drip of articles that condemn western countries for not being as good as they think they are. They never stop to think of the undeniable fact that the western world is still the best place to live in human history regardless of who you are and what you believe or think. So yes, pretty damn exceptional actually and worth protecting and preserving.

The second most recommended comment is by “YorkieBrummy”:

Contrast with the impeccable safety records of China and Russia.

Is UK/US “exceptionalism” the new Graun buzzword?

The same commenter then adds,

Nothing about NASA’s toxic masculinity?

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.

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