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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.

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