PASSENGERS

Earthrise
‘Earthrise’

TELEVISION, STARS, AND THE SADNESS OF ASTRONAUTS

“We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”

— William Anders, Apollo 8 astronaut.

Television — or at least, the image dissection technology at the core of it —was invented by Philo T Farnsworth II in 1927, but it did not bring him much joy. The Radio Corporation of America tried to buy him out, and when he refused they launched a seventeen year war of legal attrition against him which he eventually won, but at great cost to his health. He never made any money out of his invention, and reportedly despised the consumerist, culturally debasing uses to which the new medium was put. By 1969 he was a sick man, with only a couple of years left to live, but when his invention brought to a worldwide audience those blurry images of the first men to walk on the moon, he turned to his wife with an expression of joy on his face and said, ‘Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.’

A sad and ironic little story, in retrospect.

The word television, from Greek and Latin roots, literally means ‘seeing at a distance’. The televisualisation of the moon landings in 1969 represents the greatest distance the human race had ever seen — around 240,000 kilometres into space.

Strangely, those blurry, eery scenes transmitted live from the moon’s surface were second generation images. NASA’s equipment, allegedly, was incompatible with that of the television companies, and so the images had to be displayed on a (small, black and white) TV monitor and reshot by a camera for broadcast, leading to significant loss of quality. The original footage has in fact never been broadcast. So, we thought we were seeing far — but actually we were seeing film of a TV monitor on the ground in Houston. This lo-tech improvisation seems a rather farcical failure, in the context of the epoch-making technological triumph that the moon landings represent — and maybe it was. Or maybe it was one of the most convincing special effects ever conceived, conveying the almost surreal sense of watching images from another world. 

Moon TV

I was thirteen in 1969, and while the Apollo missions were part of the back-drop of the times — I remember being given glossy posters of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, helmetless in their white suits — this extraordinary landmark in the history of human exploration did not make much of an impression on me. Perhaps because the moon itself was such a desert, the monotones of the astronauts so lacking in any sense of drama, and their presence on the moon apparently so lacking in any particular purpose apart from winning a race, the event stirred almost nothing in my psyche. If anything its impact was a diminishment rather than a deepening of the great mystery of being alive in this universe. 

There were no stars. No sense of depth or distance; no sense, then, of wonder. Only the blank, black backdrop of the sky.

The images conveyed, ironically, a weird sense of claustrophobia.

What’s the point of being on the moon if you don’t look at the stars? Imagine — outside of earth’s atmosphere — the staggering immensity and depth of that sight, that star-field. 

All in all, for me, the conquest of the moon was a strange kind of non-event. 

Perhaps if I’d seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before, when it came out, I’d have felt more of a sense human destiny. And I’m sure if I was American I would have felt different. The Apollo missions gave the American public something else to think about than the cruel, pointless war going on half a world away in Viet Nam. That war was something else that pretty much passed me by as a naive young teenager. After all, growing up in provincial England, I didn’t have older brothers or cousins threatened by the draft, or emerging blinking from the bellies of military transports onto the soil of a tropical, third-world country, feeling, no doubt, as if they were stepping onto the surface of another planet. 

 

I took no further interest in the Apollo missions — another six of them in the next three years or so. I don’t even remember anything about the dramatic Apollo 13 mission, which later became the script for a movie I haven’t seen. By 1972 I was already disappearing into the psychedelic cocoon of the counter-culture. I spent my undergraduate years playing in rock bands and dropping acid, wrapped up in Chaucer’s dream poems, Shakespeare’s romances and the Celtic twilight of W B Yeats. 

As for Viet Nam, it was only when the movies started coming out — The Deer Hunter in 1978, Apocalypse Now in ’79 — that I started to become aware of the grim reality of that shameful war and to understand the deep barbarity that underlay the shallow veneer of twentieth century modernity. We in the West did eventually see as far as the killing fields of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia — not so much through television as through cinema, and it took time; but with freelance photographers like Tim Page and Nick Ut roaming the country, and GIs like Oliver Stone and Tim O’Brien returning home with stories to tell, we in the West would end up seeing that distant war more clearly than any up until that time. In fact, we saw so much that the United States would be inhibited in its foreign ventures for almost a generation by so-called ‘Viet Nam syndrome’. There would be no more boots on the ground for another twenty years, and imagery-control would be tightly imposed on the Gulf War, or the ‘atrocity masquerading as a war’, as Baudrillard put it — in the early 90s.

But at the time the American public was distracted from the reality of what was happening on the other side of the world by images beamed from 240,000 kilometres away. As Gerhard Wisnewski put it in his book One Small Step? The Great Moon Hoax and the Race to Dominate Earth From Space, quoted in a very good article on the Unz Review:

NASA was a manufactured dream to keep Americans looking up at the sky while their government was committing atrocities in Vietnam. […] While the United States of America was murdering thousands of Vietnamese people, burning down one hectare after another of virgin forest and poisoning the land with pesticides, it was at the same time trying to fascinate—or should one say hypnotize?—the world with a conquest of quite another kind. (Wisnewski 131)

The researcher Dave McGowan, in his highly readable series Wagging the Moondoggie, widely available online, follows Wisnewski in compiling a timeline of the Apollo programme set against the fall-out of events from the Viet Nam war. I’ll give an extensive quotation from McGowan, to honour the flow and bite of his satirical style, and then summarise the main points of his timeline. This is the passage in which he introduces the thesis underlying his title:

1969. Richard Nixon has just been inaugurated as our brand new president, and his ascension to the throne is in part due to his promises to the American people that he will disengage from the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. But Tricky Dick has a bit of a problem on his hands in that he has absolutely no intention of ending the war. In fact, he would really, really like to escalate the conflict as much as possible. But to do so, he needs to set up a diversion – some means of stoking the patriotic fervor of the American people so that they will blindly rally behind him.

In short, he needs to wag the dog.

This has, of course, traditionally been done by embarking on some short-term, low-risk military endeavor. The problem for Big Dick, however, is that a military mission is exactly what he is trying to divert attention away from. What, then, is a beleaguered president to do? Why, send Neil and Buzz to the Moon, of course! Instead of wagging the dog, it’s time to try something new: wagging the Moondoggie!

In May of 1969, with Nixon just a few months into his term, the press begins publicizing the illegal B-52 carpetbombing of Cambodia engineered by that irrepressible war criminal, Henry Kissinger. By June, Nixon is scrambling to announce what is dubbed the ‘Vietnamization’ of the war, which comes with a concomitant withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In truth, however, only 25,000 of the 540,000 U.S. troops then deployed will be brought home. This ruse is, therefore, transparently thin and it will buy the new president little time. To make matters worse, on July 14th, Francis Reitemeyer is granted Conscientious Objector status on the basis of a petition his attorney has filed which explicitly details the training and instruction he has just received in assassination and torture techniques in conjunction with his assignment to the CIA’s Phoenix Program. With these documents entering the public domain, the full horrors of the war are beginning to emerge.

Just in time to save the day, however, Apollo 11 blasts off on July 16th on its allegedly historic mission, and – with the entire nation enthralled – four days later the Eagle purportedly makes its landing on the pristine lunar surface. Vietnam is temporarily forgotten as America swells with patriotic pride for having beaten the Evil Empire to the Moon. There is little time to worry about the brutality of war when Neil is taking that “one giant leap for mankind.”

This juxtaposition inaugurates a pattern. Every time bad news — horrifying, incriminating news of the psychopathy of the superpower — emerges from a small Third World country 9,000 miles away, it is offset by the dazzling flame of rocket-launches, the gleam of spacesuits and the steady gaze of clean-cut all-American heroes. So when Seymour Hersh’s exposure of the Mỹ Lai massacre, where 504 women, children and old men were murdered by American troops and women and girls as young as twelve years old were gang-raped,  murdered and mutilated, was published on 12th November 1969, the public was immediately distracted by the launch of Apollo 12 on the 14th. “The country,” writes McGowan, “is once again entranced by the exploits of America’s new breed of hero, and suddenly every kid in the country wants to grow up to be an astronaut.”

In 1970 Nixon authorises an invasion of Cambodia, expanding the war both by air and on the ground. Immediately, Americans audiences are gripped by the drama of Apollo 13’s flirtation with disaster as this third Apollo spacecraft “fails to reach the moon and instead drifts about for the next six days with the crew in mortal danger of being forever lost in space!” 

The drama is still unfolding and dominating the news cycle three days later, when three Vietnam veterans hold simultaneous press conferences in New York, San Francisco and Rome, exposing and renouncing their own participation in the Phoenix Program, the CIA’s counter-insurgency effort against the Viet Cong in South Viet Nam — a vile tale of arbitrary murder, sadistic torture, and the ‘neutralisation’ of more than 80,000 civilians. 

The pattern continues. January 1971 sees the opening of the trial of Lt William Calley, the designated fall-guy for the My Lai atrocity, and by the end of the month Apollo 14 lifts off. A few months later, the New York Times begins publication of the Pentagon Papers, exposing the secret wars in Cambodia and Laos, and this is quickly followed by the launch of Apollo 15. On March 30th 1972 a huge North Vietnamese offensive into Quang Tri Province reveals that America is far from winning this war as the official propaganda insists. Nixon and Kissinger’s response is deep penetration bombing of the North, and the illegal mining of ports — and Apollo 16’s launch on April 16th. 

In December, secret peace talks break down and a carpet-bombing campaign is launched against North-Vietnamese civilians — but the public is dazzled by the first night-launch of a Saturn V rocket, carrying the Apollo 17 astronauts. 

And that’s it. The final coincidence is the simultaneous abandonment of both the war and the Apollo program in January 1973. 

… just five weeks later, the talks having resumed, a peace agreement is announced. Within a few days a ceasefire is in effect, thereby officially ending America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Though the CIA will remain to continue directing the war by proxy, America’s men and women in uniform come home. And the Apollo program – despite several additional missions having been planned and discussed, and despite the additional funding that should have been available with the war drawing to a close – will never be heard from again. (McGowan)

 

In his 1981 hymn to the age of artificiality, Simulacra and Simulation, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard introduces his concept of the ‘precession of simulacra’, the process by which simulation usurps reality, the map replaces the territory, and the reality principle ‘dies’, leaving behind nothing but an empty iconography. The mystery, for me, is this: Simulacra does not predict the precession of simulacra, but acknowledges it as something which has already happened. It consistently implies that already we are living in a ‘hyperreal’ society, a false reality — and I have wondered at what point he placed the dawn of that condition. Precession is a process rather than an event, no doubt, but nevertheless we can ask: what are the watersheds? What key moments illuminate the process?

In the first few paragraphs of Simulacra, Baudrillard touches repeatedly on a particular group of metaphors which recurs occasionally throughout the book, but is particularly noticeable in the opening pages: rhetorical phrases such as ‘A hyperspace without atmosphere’ … ‘crossing into space whose curvature is no longer that of the real’; and the fetishistic use of the word ‘orbital’. This rhetoric seems to invite reflection on the spectacle of the Apollo missions a decade earlier, hinting, whether consciously or not, at 1969 as a significant date in the process of precession, at an awareness of a huge epoch-making simulation even greater than that of 2001, with enormous implications for the Western psyche. Those who believe the Apollo missions to have been simulated often portray it as a relatively benign deception, but this would be naive — like the global theatre of 2001, the deception, if that’s what it was, screens a panorama of violence — the war system, the genocidal, ecocidal cruelty of empire. 

What I didn’t realise until much later was that, even at the time, there were people who suspected that the lunar scenes had been filmed in a studio. A contemporary survey, albeit with a relatively small sample size of less than 2,000 people, found no less than one in three of them expressing skepticism. The first major book on the subject, which came out in 1976, was written and self-published not by some nerdy conspiracy theorist but by the head of technical presentations at the Rocketdyne Propulsion Field Laboratory from 1956 to ’63, a period encompassing the major planning for the Apollo project (Bill Kaysing — We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle). As early as 1971, with the Apollo programme still ongoing, Hollywood was already screening an inside joke about it in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, where the hero, on the loose in a military installation in the desert, witnesses moonwalks being enacted on a film set and escapes by stealing the moon-buggy. (The ‘astronauts’ try to stop him but he easily evades them since they can only move in slow motion!)

With the launch of the internet, which enabled people to examine the photographs and footage for themselves, the numbers of doubters grew enormously. By 2016, a survey found that 52% of the British public thought that the moon landings had been faked. In 2018 a poll in Russia found that 57% of the public believes that a human being has never set foot on the moon. In the US, by contrast, opinion has solidified around the official narrative, and patriotic attachment taken the edge off the willingness to doubt; a 2013 poll put their numbers at a mere 7%. I suppose it’s different for Americans; the psychology of belief much more complex. The timeline of the Apollo missions set against the climactic years of the Viet Nam war, the counterpoint of the horrors of Indochina and the glamour of space exploration, goes a long way to explaining why Americans would have a harder time letting go of their ‘Tranquillity Base’. There’s a kind of psychological survival instinct involved.

In a fully sourced and linked essay published on the Unz Review, the anonymous author, ‘Moon Landing Skeptic’ (MLS), starts, correctly, by invoking the epistemological principle that it is impossible to prove a negative, and that therefore the burden of proof lies with NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. If the missions did indeed take place as advertised, you would think it would be possible to prove conclusively that they did so. To have accomplished such an extraordinary feat and be unable to prove it seems inconceivable, and yet the fact is that NASA cannot. The moon rocks they claim to have brought back don’t do it, since many of them were demonstrably sourced on earth. Laser ping-backs don’t do it, since they were achievable years before the Apollo landings. The landing sites don’t do it, protected now for reasons of ‘historical preservation’ by NASA-declared no-fly zones. 

The astonishing fact is that NASA can never, now, take up the burden of proof, since they have by their own admission lost all the evidence. All the original data has disappeared, including the video footage, voice data, biomedical monitoring data, telemetry data regarding the location and mechanical functioning of the spaceship — all of it is gone. 

“All of that data,” writes McGowan, “the entire alleged record of the Moon landings, was on the 13,000+ reels that are said to be ‘missing.’ Also missing, according to NASA and its various subcontractors, are the original plans/blueprints for the lunar modules. And for the lunar rovers. And for the entire multi-sectioned Saturn V rockets.

There is, therefore, no way for the modern scientific community to determine whether all of that fancy 1960s technology was even close to being functional or whether it was all for show. Nor is there any way to review the physical record, so to speak, of the alleged flights. We cannot, for example, check the fuel consumption throughout the flights to determine what kind of magic trick NASA used to get the boys there and back with less than 1% of the required fuel. And we will never, it would appear, see the original, first-generation video footage.”

One way that NASA would and should have been able to prove their case beyond doubt would have been to produce astronomical photographs taken from the moon, but there are none. To go to the moon and not take telescopic photographs of the universe from there, even from lunar orbit, is so incomprehensible to me, such a glaring absence of evidence as to amount, despite the well-known saying, to evidence of absence.

If the Apollo crews had photographed the moon’s starry sky, that could have served the NASA to counter the accusation of fraud. For back in the 1960s, it would have been very hard to make the computer calculation to make the stars’ constellation consistent. Unfortunately, no one thought about it at the NASA. The astronauts were asked to look down and collect rocks, not to look up and study the stars. It is as if the NASA were a congregation of geologists who despised astronomy. And to think that they spend billions of dollars sending telescopes into earth’s orbit! To be fair, I have read about a telescope installed by the Apollo 16 crew, but it seems that no one has ever seen what came out of it. In any case, not a single picture of the NASA archives show any star in the sky. (MLS)

McGowan comes up with an evocative comparison for this strange and unexpected anomaly, the blank, black sky of all the photographs, and the weird, autistic lack of outward gaze on NASA’s part.

“It’s as if someone went to Niagara Falls,” he writes, “and the only photos they brought back were of the car they drove sitting in a nondescript parking lot.”

 

The skeptics cannot prove they didn’t go, and NASA can’t prove they did. The connection of representation to reality is severed; and this gives us the perfect illustration of Baudrillardian hyperreality. In any case, it is at this point an academic question, relative to the weaponisation of space which the civilian space programme undoubtedly served to mask and fund. And yet, the question is one of great human interest. For all the journalistic fascination with how it felt to step out on to the surface of another celestial body, how much more of a story is it if courageous men were forced to live a lie for most of their lives? 

Moon press conferenceOf all the suspicious aspects of the Apollo 11 mission, one of the most arresting comes in its aftermath, when the three astronauts emerged from two weeks of ‘quarantine’ to face  the world’s press. The emotional state projected by all three men, and particularly  by Armstrong and Aldrin, appears downbeat, almost depressed. Maybe their tension is just stage-fright, in front of such a large audience. Maybe the lack of conviction is just an aspect of Armstrong’s personality, setting the tone. As the occasion proceeds, the three astronauts do warm to their task, speaking in some detail about their activities and routines, minor technical problems and so on. But there are some strange moments. When asked if each of them would say a few words about how he interprets the significance of the groundbreaking mission, there is an embarrassing silence before Armstrong turns to Aldrin, slumped sulkily in his chair, and prompts him to go first. 

Michael Collins, the pilot of the command module, who did not descend to the moon’s surface, tries to inject a little animation and humour into proceedings from time to time. When the British astronomer and broadcaster Patrick Moore asks whether any stars were visible through the glare of the moon’s surface, Armstrong replies that no, they were not visible unless one looked ‘through the optics’, at which point Collins interjects that he doesn’t remember seeing a single one throughout the mission. This is a very strange statement when you compare it with the testimony of astronauts who flew the Gemini missions and later spoke of spending hours with their faces pressed up against port-holes, riveted by the beauty of the infinite star-scapes they were witnessing from beyond earth’s atmosphere. 

All three of the Apollo 11 astronauts resigned from NASA within a year of their triumph, well before the mothballing of the Apollo programme. Aldrin became an alcoholic (and is clearly drunk in many of the interviews he gave). Armstrong, while it is an exaggeration to say he became a recluse, refused to give interviews, limited his public appearances for many years, and absented himself from NASA’s various anniversary commemorations. On a rare public appearance, speaking at the White House on the 20th July 1994, the 25th anniversary of the landing, he spoke cryptically of ‘truth’s protective layers’ and compared himself to a parrot — a bird which, he joked, doesn’t fly very well (but, we might add, repeats what it is told). I have to say, if — if — these men were forced into living a lie for the rest of their lives, I feel enormous sympathy for them. I feel certain it would not have been their choice. 

In 2001 a director of TV commercials, Bart Sibrel, revived the controversy with his documentary A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon, which was aired on television. The film is based around archived NASA footage which he was apparently sent by mistake, and which shows the astronauts in near-earth orbit apparently faking a ‘distant’ view of the earth by using a port-hole and a lighting gel. The footage is time-stamped 18th July, at which time the mission should have been halfway to the moon, and does indeed appear to be damning evidence that Apollo 11 was a triumph of simulation, not exploration — a watershed in the precession of simulacra. [1]

Sibrel followed this up with a short film called Astronauts Gone Wild, in which he tracks down a number of the men who claim to have walked on the moon in the Apollo missions, and tries to force them to swear on the Bible that their claims are God’s truth. The most noteworthy interview in the film is the one with Aldrin (analysed here), recorded in 2002. Aldrin, 72 years old and sober now, is cagey from the beginning, and when ambushed with the footage he becomes agitated, declares the interview over and demands the camera be shut off, but does not directly dispute the authenticity of the video. His quarrel is not with the evidence but with Sibrel obtaining the interview on false pretences. The camera continues to run, compounding the offence, and captures the exchanges between the astronaut and his accuser. Finally, goaded by Sibrel’s self-righteous spiel, Aldrin snaps,

“You’re talking to the wrong guy. Why don’t you talk to the administrator of NASA? We’re passengers… We’re, we’re guys going on a flight. We’re not…”

Now that is a historically revealing utterance. 

Sibrel, in his incompetence, interrupts before he can finish his sentence. We’re not — what? The ones calling the shots?

Apart from Aldrin’s moment of exasperated candour, what makes the film so watchable is the element of suspense: Sibrel, who of course deserves much credit for his persistence but little for his lack of empathy, possesses an intolerably self-righteous manner and a really quite punchable face, a thought that visibly crosses the minds of several of the astronauts he interviews. If Aldrin and Armstrong were participants in a grand deception, does Sibrel really think it was their idea? That these men would have chosen to end their careers on such a note? And how naive would you have to be to think that they could just come out and confess it without facing consequences? That ‘truth’s protective layers’ are not, in a word, weaponised? [2]

As I watched the film I was waiting for the flashpoint, chuckling and muttering to myself, ‘You’re gonna get punched… you’re gonna get punched!’ When it finally happened it was Aldrin again, waylaid in the street by Sibrel waving the Holy Book in his face and calling him a coward, a liar, and a… thpfunf! I think it was.

You could see it coming, and it was no anti-climax; a straight right to the mouth with a nice audible connection. 

And I laughed.

I’m still laughing now, actually. 

WvB at exhib
Werner von Braun on a replica of ‘Tranquility base’ [5]

I found it hard to choose a title for this piece, because I wasn’t really sure what it was about. More than anything else, I think it’s probably about television. And the age I’ve lived through, apart from anything else, was the television age. How much of our lives did we spend entranced by that device, the most effective propaganda instrument ever invented?

It’s a long time now since I’ve lived with TV. I conceived a strong aversion to it, and find some of my contemporaries’ continued relationship with it awfully strange. To me it seems weirdly anachronistic, like 1950s science fiction. And of course I know there’s good product on TV — unbelievably good product, I’m sure, fascinating and addictive. Of course, there would be. The investment, the money and talent going into it is enormous. But I no longer need entertainment, and know that entertainment is entrainment. 

NASA’s transmissions reached a worldwide audience of half a billion people. The timing was right, as a Wired Magazine article quoted by McGowan points out: 

If NASA had really wanted to fake the moon landings – we’re talking purely hypothetically here – the timing was certainly right. The advent of television, having reached worldwide critical mass only years prior to the moon landing, would prove instrumental to the fraud’s success.

The deeper lesson,” writes ‘Moon Landing Skeptic’, “is that it was made possible by television, and would have been impossible otherwise. Hardly anybody would have believed it if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes.”

Interestingly, NASA had close ties with the film industry. Its first administrator, T. Keith Glennan (1958-1961) had started his career in Hollywood, working as a studio manager at Paramount Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Studios. NASA gave considerable support to the production of Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey — which could in retrospect be seen as a significant example of predictive programming, where fiction media are used to establish precedents for propaganda narratives and planned change.

That Kubrick received support from the NASA for 2001 is actually no secret: the scenario was co-written by Arthur C. Clark, an enthusiastic supporter and contributor of NASA adventures, and several assistants for the film, such as Harry Lange and Frederick Ordway, had worked for NASA and aerospace contractors. Some therefore believe that 2001 was part of a NASA program both to fascinate the public with space travel and to test production techniques. That hypothesis first arose when skeptics studying the Apollo photos and films became convinced that they had been made in movie studios using the technique called frontscreen projection, which had been perfected by Stanley Kubrick for his film 2001. (MLS)

In 1965 Kubrick was permitted to observe the Ranger 9 spacecraft to help him achieve accuracy [3]. Ranger 9 was a lunar probe carrying six television cameras, designed to achieve a lunar impact trajectory while transmitting live images of the surface up to the moment of impact. The relevance of the existence of such imagery to any hypothetical attempt to simulate a moon landing hardly needs to be pointed out — simulation, of course, played an over-ridingly important role in preparing for the mission, including the building of a moon surface ‘set’ with tons of specially manufactured ‘moondust’. In fact, virtually all of imagery necessary to simulate Apollo 11’s moon landing could have been obtained from flight simulators and other other training simulations. 

Kubrick also benefitted from his NASA connections in later film productions — for instance, he was able to obtain Zeiss lenses specially developed for NASA to film scenes under natural candlelight in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon. Arthur C Clarke, Kubrick’s writer on 2001, also had strong connections with NASA, and even appeared as television commentator on the Apollo 11 moon landing for the CBS (Columbia Broadcasting Service) network.

The discovery that the photographs and video footage associated with the Apollo missions are entirely consistent with the use of front screen projection also led some to believe that Kubrick himself directed the Apollo simulations, and then cryptically confessed his involvement a decade later in his 1980 adaptation of a Stephen King novel, The Shining — all of which remains unproven but forms an interesting subplot to this whole space opera. [4]

McGowan also reflects on an equally intriguing connection between the Apollo program and pre-war German cinema, specifically Fritz Lang’s 1929 silent film Die Frau Im Mond (The Woman in the Moon). This feature film, writes McGowan, 

provided the blueprint for the heavily ritualized launch procedures that were adopted for the Apollo program. […] All of the elements were there: the unnecessary vertical construction of the spaceship in a specially built hangar; the grand opening of the massive hangar doors; the excruciatingly slow roll-out of the upright rocketship from the hangar to the launch pad; the raucous crowds watching the spectacle live; the now ubiquitous countdown; even the shedding of two stages of the ship. In other words, the only elements of the performance that the public ever actually witnessed were all lifted directly from a forty-year-old silent film.

The kicker is that this connection is not only aesthetic. Fritz Lang’s technical advisor for the production was the rocket scientist Herman Oberth, and one of his assistants on the production was his promising student, none other than the nineteen-year-old Wernher von Braun.

“A decade-and-a-half later,” writes McGowan, “both Oberth and von Braun would be scooped up through the Paperclip project and brought to America to work on, among other things, the Apollo program, whose choreography just happened to very closely match that of the fake Moon launch Oberth and von Braun had crafted forty years earlier.” [5]

Frau im Mond
Fritz Lang’s Die Frau Im Mond (1929)

This essay isn’t about the moon, any more than the Apollo programme was. In writing this essay I am under no illusion that I am writing about outer space or anything other than this rare, blue, beautiful planet and the fate of its inhabitants. As the Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, who took the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, put it so memorably: “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”

The Apollo missions helped to distract the public from the reality of what the US had become in the post-war years. Their importance as a psychological counterbalance to the horrors of Viet Nam is undeniable, filling up the news cycle and promoting an idea of Americans as mythic heroes at a time when their soldiers and their bombers were committing some of the most horrific crimes against civilian populations the world has ever seen. It is an astonishing fact that the United States dropped more bombs on the tiny third-world country of Laos than were used in the entirety of the Second World War; agriculture in that country remains crippled to this day, most of their food having to be imported. In Cambodia, US actions led directly to the genocidal horrors of the Khmer Rouge. 

But the moon missions, or their simulation — take your pick — had been planned for nearly a decade, and were not produced like a rabbit out of a hat in response to the set-backs and crimes of the United States’ involvement in the 2nd Indochina war, or created for that purpose. The ‘moondoggie’ was already there to be wagged, so where did it come from? 

Footprints on the moon are a distraction from a much more important question — one which becomes more relevant to our own lives with every passing day. Were those programmes — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo — ever about exploration, or merely the drive for total domination of earth from space?

Wisnewski argues that the civilian space program was first and foremost, from its inception, a cover for military programs. 

The NASA Act of 1958 made explicit provisions for close collaboration with the Department of Defense, and in practice, the Pentagon was involved in all decisions regarding the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Erlend Kennan and Edmund Harvey documented this point in Mission to the Moon: a critical examination of NASA and the space program, as early as 1969, and concluded: ‘It remains imperative to have NASA keep its status as the decorous front parlor of the space age in order to reap public support for all space projects and give Defense Department space efforts an effective ‘cover’. (Wisnewski, 296)

Crucially, the space program provided cover and budget for the development of the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile.

Besides launching satellites for espionage purposes, the NASA was to contribute to the development of transcontinental rockets. For after WWII, the equation was simple: “Rocket + atom bomb = world power” (Wisnewski 62).

The moon mission was not about new horizons, exploration, anything about the noble human spirit. It was about long-range weapons and the domination of earth from space. That’s all. Near-earth orbit was all that mattered, as strategic high ground from which to dominate the planet. The rest was all just a manufactured dream to keep us asleep to the development of space as a weapons platform. 

In truth, the entire space program has largely been, from its inception, little more than an elaborate cover for the research, development and deployment of space-based weaponry and surveillance systems. (McGowan)

_________________________

[1] There are by now many well-researched books and films on the subject, one of the best of the latter, I would say, being American Moon by Massimo Mazzucco (2017).

[2] While Armstrong ran off to become a college professor, shielding himself as much as he could against the media glare, Aldrin was left stranded in its spotlight. In a clip from a British television interview from 1973, he is responding to a question about being the second man on the moon as opposed to the first, and how that may have affected him. While obviously not someone who relished coming second in anything, he claims to be happy to have avoided the even more intense attention that would have been trained on him if he’d been in Armstrong’s position, and jokes that he might have ended up retreating into academia like his colleague. The interviewer switches tack with the prompt: ‘As it is, it nearly destroyed you,’ a reference to Aldrin’s well-known problems. And he stares at the interviewer, expressionless and unblinking, a ‘thousand yard stare’ if ever I saw one. ‘Right,’ he agrees, softly, and holds his gaze, his eyes giving away absolutely nothing, but saying it all: there are things that cannot be spoken of.

[3] Source: Duncan, Paul (2003). Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films.

[4] 2001 is based on Clarke’s 1948 short story The Sentinel, about a tetrahedron-shaped device which is found on the Moon which alerts aliens of mankind. Kubrick changed the shape and colour of the object for visual reasons. The monoliths, similarly proportioned (1: 4: 9) objects seen on the earth in the prehistoric scenes, on the moon, floating in space in the vicinity of Jupiter, and in the surreal final scenes, is a mysterious motif — the film critic Ron Ager offers the interesting interpretation in The Meaning of the Monolith Revealed that it represents the cinema screen itself. This post-modern interpretation as a self-conscious narrative element is inviting and plausible as a secondary interpretation; if not the meaning, certainly a layer of meaning — Kubrick’s as opposed to Clarke’s. How much more tempting is it, though anachronistic, to compare the object with the smart-phones of today, which exert as much fascination and control over the human ape as the monolith in the early scenes of 2001.

[5] The Atlanta exhibit — a meta-simulacrum?

CONSTELLATION

The old lady was up before dawn, as she always is, cooking breakfast on her wood stove — with so much wood lying around, why use gas? — when her eye was caught by something strange: a procession of bright lights moving silently across the dark sky. A straight line, evenly spaced, a taut string of stars. 

There was something spooky about it. Nothing natural, obviously. 

3 thoughts on “PASSENGERS

  1. I imagine variations of ” Let’s not and say we did ” , such as , Let’s do it but we’d better give them a show . While we debate the anomalies of NASA , Never A Straight Answer , and the show , something else is going on .

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