Between the Moon and Woodstock
Anyone old enough to remember the moon landing, fifty years ago today, is also old enough to remember what was said about the moon landing while it was happening. At the time—the very height of the Vietnam War, when the establishment that had sent up the rocket faced a kind of daily full-court-press rebellion, from what had only just been dubbed the “counterculture”—the act of sending three very white guys to the moon seemed, as Norman Mailer wrote at the time, like the final, futile triumph of Wasp culture. It was still called that then, to distinguish it from the culture of Italian and Jews and the other “ethnic” whites, who were seen, in Michael Novak’s famous phrase, as “unmeltable ethnics,” not at all as part of the élite caste of white people. (O tempora! O mores!)
Mailer’s book on the topic, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” which was serialized in Life magazine, another long-gone instrument of that culture, was the usual mid-period Mailer mix of eight parts bullshit to two parts very shrewd observation—in some of his earlier books, the shrewd stuff was all the way up to three parts—but its interpretation of the meaning of the moon landing is still potent. The Apollo 11 mission was, he insisted, chilling in its self-evident futility, its enormous orchestrated energy, and its ultimate pointlessness. We went there because we could go there, with the strong implication that this was also, to borrow the title of another Mailer book, why we were in Vietnam; the Wasp establishment had been restless since it got off the Mayflower, and was always seeking new worlds to conquer for no reason.
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What is easy to forget now is that it was a summer balanced between two equally potent national events: the Wasp triumph of the moon landing, answered, almost exactly a month later, by the counterculture triumph of Woodstock. (This reporter recalls standing on a street corner that summer, in Philadelphia, selling copies of an underground weekly, Distant Drummer, with the headline “Woodstock Ushers in Aquarian Age” and nary a word about the moon.) Of the two events, there was no question which seemed more central to anyone under thirty.
Nowadays, of course, if Woodstock were to happen as it happened then—the mud, the squalor, the late shows, the bad acoustics—everyone would complain, and the organizers would all be brought up, so to speak, on Fyre Festival charges. And if we could send a man to the moon again—well, it wouldn’t likely be a man, and almost certainly not one called Buzz, and we wouldn’t talk about a small step for a man or a giant leap for all mankind.
The moon landing is, if anything, more urgently felt as cultural material now. Some of that is due to helpfully revisionist history, which makes the event seem slightly less Waspy, slightly more Woodstockian. The moon mission has yet to be queered, as they say in academia, but it has been re-gendered. The role of women in making the moon landing happen, which back then was presented solely in the images of the tasteful, cautious astronaut wives, has been greatly deepened. (Though one of the virtues of Ron Howard’s fine film “Apollo 13” was to allow, in the character of Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, nicely played by Kathleen Quinlan, the grit in those dutiful space wives to shine through.)
There was, of course, the movie “Hidden Figures,” from 2016, which documented the shamefully under-sung role of three African-American women at NASA in making the Mercury program possible. Another, more eccentric retelling, Nicholas de Monchaux’s terrific book “Spacesuit,” from 2011, describes how Italian-American seamstresses, accustomed to making women’s underthings, made the astronauts’ overthings. It was “a story of the triumph over the military-industrial complex by the International Latex Corporation, best known by its consumer brand of ‘Playtex’—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness.” Most recently, we have been re-instructed in the crucial role of the computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who led a team at M.I.T. that wrote the software—though it was not yet often referred to as such—that made the flight possible.
In a larger sense, though, the two landmark events might best be seen as one, since both the moon landing and Woodstock were, above all, tech fests. Though the rhetoric of Woodstock was swooningly pastoral—“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” the great Joni Mitchell, who wasn’t there, sang—the truth is that it was the new Marshall stack of amplifiers that made hearing the music possible. When Jimi Hendrix played “The Star-Spangled Banner”—shocking one half of America and delighting the other by turning the anthem into a delirious machine-gun, air-raid-siren shriek—it was on a Marshall 1959 system, with two four-by-twelve-foot cabinets (his “couple of great refrigerators”). That was, in its way, as much a triumph of Anglo-American artisanal tech—Jim Marshall was English, but the Fenders, who made Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitar, were Californian—as the onboard computers. Indeed, the two events were more alike than they seemed then, since both took place in remote, inaccessible settings and became public, above all, through long-distance broadcasts: everyone saw Woodstock in the movies and heard it on records, as they saw the moon landing on television. What no one could have foreseen then was that the two veins would meet in the efflorescence of post-Woodstock high-tech culture—the pop culture of the Steve Jobs generation—that has become the central American preoccupation of the period that came next, our own. Pop culture dependent on new tech and new tech pressed to the uses of pop culture—that’s our anthem, our music.
The curious thing is that, in the midst of our own overkill tech culture, the moon shots suddenly look attractively modest, like a decent, craftsmanlike approach to a problem presented. The most moving cultural representations of NASA and the Apollo missions lie in dramatizations not of the tech triumphs themselves but in the human struggles that made them happen—in, for instance, Ed Harris’s wonderful performance in “Apollo 13,” as the flight director Gene Kranz, who was also the flight director of Apollo 11. When everything goes sideways, and panic is imminent, and all seems lost, Kranz says, simply, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”
Those words—like the more famous statement attributed to Kranz, “Failure is not an option”—may be apocryphal. But his official, recorded words seem even more apropos. After the catastrophe of Apollo 1, when three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee—died in a prelaunch rehearsal, Kranz gave a speech to his NASA team. “From this day forward,” he said, “Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘tough’ and ‘competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do, or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities.” He continued, “Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. . . . Each day, when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.”
“Tough” and “competent” were, well, echt Wasp words, as Mailer would doubtless have pointed out. (Woodstock words were more often magical-minded: “wild” for charismatic leadership, and “weird,” meaning expert.) But it is worth being reminded of the genuine values those words once held: “tough” for Kranz meant the opposite of showy braggadocio; it meant being accountable and taking responsibility for what we do. “Competent,” in that dialect, meant actually being good at something difficult, and valuing expertise and education above all else. These words could still be the price of admission to a position of leadership, in a broadened and diverse America, as much as they were to the narrowly defined team back then. They might still get us out of the mud, and onto the moon.