The Apollo 11 moon landing was a distraction from America’s problems – The Guardian

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On a bright winter morning in 2014, I pressed my head against the glass of my bedroom window and asked a man who had walked on the moon to tell me about the colors there. The black sky as seen from that planet, Alan Bean said, on the phone from Texas, was “glossy” like “patent leather”. It’s a recording I’ve listened to many times since, trying to understand the particular solitude of the midcentury astronaut, a person who could explore another world while his own spun in flames. As a girl raised in the fallout of liberal northern California’s anti-war revolution, men like him had always been objects of disdain to me – products of the military-industrial complex, upholders of white patriarchy – though somehow their achievements, the spacesuits and rockets, had escaped my scorn. But as research for my novel about the Apollo program deepened, a strange inversion was taking place: I was coming to revere the men who defined it, whose conservative politics I despised, but coming to question what they’d done, the celestial explorations I’d always assumed existed outside of politics. As though you could understand the unhappiness of a marriage by the details of an affair that went on outside of it, my understanding of the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s had always come directly from the left-most, long-haired side of it, the stories and biases of my parents, people who had lived excessively and died young, their memories of that time never more than a happy tap of the ashtray away. They met as reporters at the Oakland Tribune in 1987, he a member of the Silent Generation conditioned to petrify his ideas in private, she a Boomer who lived like a slogan, bold and loud. She danced to the Dead, making strange shapes in the air, and he read about the nature of time, making trippy notes in the margins. Where her rebellion was public and bodily, his was existential and sub rosa, and the compound result, in their parenting, was that I was never asked to brush my hair, but always required to have an opinion. As a child, I felt an outsider’s near erotic longing at the idea of things like made beds and time-outs. The year I was seven, I sobbed at the incorrect clock on my mother’s kitchen wall – red and white and never changed for daylight savings – already beginning to believe that only the small organizations of life might protect us against the meaner waves of it. Twenty-odd years later, reading about the psychological testing Neil Armstrong endured in the brutalist Nasa complex in Houston, I felt a deep serenity. After passing into a pitch-dark room with the orders to come out in two hours, he sang to himself, a nursery rhyme on repeat – “there were 10 in the bed and the little one said: roll over, roll over” – and emerged only seconds off. In the image of that man in the quiet of that black, he is only a body, his mind secondary to his circumstances, and there was a peace in that I could not ignore, a dissolution of ego I had not expected to find on the political side of polished shoes and war mongering. Somehow, that story was an antidote to the pain I felt as the child of individualists, always loved but often forgotten, deciding to walk when the car was late or didn’t show, left alone in my afternoon and my thinking. My father would have called that time Armstrong spent in a room depersonalization, a favorite invective, an insult leveled by his hero Norman Mailer at the Apollo astronauts (“they were depersonalized to the extent they were true Christians,” he wrote in Life in 1967), but to me it seemed a great feat to forget yourself, an enlightenment purer than that possible on the LSD and psilocybin my parents espoused. Taking syringeful after syringeful of ice cold water in his ear, sitting in a room of 120F, doing all of it without so much as a raise in his heart rate: Armstrong had stepped into the void without help, had approached and chosen it. But if my childhood loved this part of the research – about the mental purity of the other side, the focus possible when the individual was done away with – my adulthood kept pulling on another thread. interactive The deeper I looked, a sinister shadow followed the light of the program’s marvels: courting the descriptions of something called “earthshine”, the strange charred smells of lunar dust, the Astrud Gilberto cassette tapes and family photos brought to the moon, were machinations of war and cries of injustice. There was the fact that in 1962, the year he gave his famous address at Rice University and secured a blank check from Congress to land a man on the moon, Kennedy had already approved 3,205 American “advisers” to the government of South Vietnam, as well as the use of the dioxin Agent Orange. There was the fact that the brilliant rocket engineers whom that blank check paid were Nazis, Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, the project that showcased their talents the V-2 rocket that killed 30,000 – built by forced Jewish laborers from the concentration camp Mittelbau-Dora. No matter how I loved the image of the Apollo 11 launch – a million exultant people transforming the beaches, binoculars held aloft from yachts where they drank Chardonnay or trucks where they tailgated with Budweiser – there was the fact that the evening before, the civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led a group of 500 activists behind mule-drawn carts to meet with Nasa deputy administrator Thomas Paine. One fifth of the country was living without proper healthcare, food, and shelter, Abernathy pointed out, an inordinate portion of them black. “I am here,” he said, “to demonstrate with poor people in a symbolic way against the tragic and inexcusable gulf that exists between America’s technological abilities and our social injustices.” The year before, he had held Martin Luther King Jr as he bled to death, and he must have wondered where that image fit in the minds of the audience. “Billions for space, the signs said. Pennies for the hungry.” A note I’d made, about a GI who confronted Neil Armstrong during a GSO tour – why, he wanted to know, was his country “so interested in the moon instead of the conflict in Vietnam” – grew different legs, walking across the page to affix itself to something Alan Bean had said: asked about how the earth looked from the moon, he had two words: “Disappointingly small.” No more bread and circuses, went an anti-Apollo protest chant, referencing the Roman poet Juvenal, his polemic against the grain subsidy autocrats afforded the lower classes in an attempt to subdue them. Even if I set aside the issue of money – $24bn spent on the program, in 1973 currency, or roughly $150bn today – there was the purer question of American attention, how we guided it. In an era of limited airtime, was the color and sound spent on astronauts and their wives and children something like a crime? Was it agitprop, a Western for the cold war audience that made no mention of certain earthly atrocities – of the black military companies who suffered gangrene for lack of the fresh socks their white peers received, of the systematic environmental devastation of a country smaller than California, of children killed and mutilated by teenagers? To say so would be easy, and you might mention the camp and artificiality shot through all things Apollo – the telescopic arm designed to hold up a flag in a place without wind, the golf ball Alan Shepard teed off the lunar surface, the basalt craters Nasa named the Sea of Fertility. In Kennedy’s address that made all that came possible, given 18 months after the early stain on his presidency that was the Bay of Pigs and five weeks shy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he does a funny thing with progress, asking the audience to consider all achievements of man as happening in the last 50 years: “Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year … Newton explored the meaning of gravity … Only last week did we discover penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now, if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.” Entreating his country in this way, playing that trick with time, he rang a prominent bell in the American psyche: to be a part of a superpower is to be a part of history, and the temptation, in playing a minor part of history, is to see other lives, other parts, as minor – over and absorbed, after all, in a few relative turns of the planet. It is also, perhaps, to hope less for yourself. Looking back on his position in history, Alan Bean was practical and pragmatic. In training, he said, you replicated all possible smells, the feeling of the spacesuit air conditioner mounted on your back, the half-second delay of communications between earth and not earth, so that you could linger in other observations. “The sun was much brighter than it ever seemed in training on earth,” he said. “The shadows were much darker.” Thinking of the freedom in this – planning so well, knowing so much, that you needed only notice flexions in light – and wanting to string a line from one side of my country to the other, I tried to liken those impressions of darkness to the sort of enlightenment I inevitably chased, the other worlds on earth that I went after. I tried psychedelics first at 15, not long after my father died in his armchair, still surrounded by Carlos Castaneda paperbacks and printouts of Pete Seeger lyrics he’d pinned up in his cluttered rental. I remembered a morning, in an isolated beach town known for removing the signs that announced it, that I left my place by the ocean in search of some water I could drink. I’d eaten acid all night, spoken very little, and I was close to naked as I walked uphill through the sunrise and mist, wearing only someone else’s cut off sweatshirt. The pink of the sky felt like a taste in my mouth, and the sound of the birds like something I could see, their chirp responsible for the movement of leaves. On the side of a one-storey church, which was white and wooden and peaked with a small belfry, I uncurled a green hose and drank a long time. When a woman with a key ring appeared, waving in a kind of admonishment, she seemed like my invention, something that had formed in my careful study of the fog. How did I seem to her, my eyes enormous and empty, the water I’d been desperate for spilled down that dirty, sandy cotton? It must have appeared I’d forgotten everything – my shoes, my manners, the school day that was about to begin without me – except the first and most primal needs of my accidental life. To identify the ligature between those trips, deep into space or deep into the mind, to find the thread between the bell sleeves and roach clips that were my mother’s country and the 4am steak-and-egg breakfasts that were Alan Bean’s, was not to understand two American cultures – one who waged war under the guise of protecting democracy, the other who used democracy to denounce that war – but to clearly see a certain American problem of the self. If the goal of one side was total control of the mind, the goal of the other total freedom, the crucial tools involved were never really the systems or institutions – the military or government, the school or church – that supported or repressed those ends. They were always the inner resources of one, for the United States has always been a country that tends to leave you, in so many ways, alone. Alone without a doctor, alone without a union, alone without a guaranteed education, and alone without much of a history, a record so short that what stands out are always the personalities that rose above it – not the six Apollo landings made possible by Nasa, but Armstrong’s laconic announcement during one of them; not the systematic redlining of cities, which kept black Americans from home ownership, but a few soundbites of Martin Luther King to be played exactly once a year in a country that hasn’t changed enough since he died for it. By the time Bean died, in 2018, the novel was done but the facts remained in my mind unarranged, something like the last things unpacked in a move between very different buildings, fragile, difficult to display in another setting. The sickness of my young country, what it did to people, what it allowed them to do, couldn’t be explained by statistics of armament or dissent, although there was a story I read that stuck with me, a narrative of ameliorative diversion that held the whole Apollo program in its speculative palm. The anecdote is simple: an 18-year-old boy, about to be deployed in 1969, a bag slung over the shoulder of his uniform, calls through the open front door to the driveway where his mother’s car is idling. He wants a few more minutes in front of the television, where Neil Armstrong has just taken his step, and though they’re very late she allows him that, hoping maybe, if he feels the satiety of wonder at what his country has done, he might be able to get some sleep, something he’s been missing given what his country has asked him to do. While it’s certain the war crimes of My Lai or Khe Sanh would have occurred with or without a grand and expensive show going on in the sky above them, it might be true that it did something for how Americans treated each other, then. Answering Ralph Abernathy, Thomas Paine said: “If we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” He asked that the leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center “regard the space program … as an encouraging demonstration of what the American people could accomplish when they had vision, leadership and adequate resources,” and to pray for the safety of the astronauts. Finally, he offered Abernathy and the activists VIP seating to watch the Saturn alight, and the two peaceably shook hands. Thinking of Abernathy watching that launch, I understood it as the zenith of American pain: that you should be, in the same breath, denied your rights, assured of your smallness, and awarded front-row tickets to combustive, deafening glory. Kathleen Alcott is the author of the critically acclaimed novels America Was Hard to Find, Infinite Home and The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets.