Many of our dads were aerospace engineers. We were unabashed nerds, before it was chic to be nerdy. We didn’t need calculators; we knew how to use slide rules. Young men in the class outnumbered women about five to one, but the mere presence of women in a middle-school science course was significant. Title IX, which opened opportunities to women, would not be codified into law until 1972. In 1969, NASA was still so male-centric that Mission Control didn’t even have a ladies room.
We huddled around the walnut TV cabinet in my lab partner’s family room, with its olive-green shag rug and cozy leather recliner. We weren’t drinkers or stoners, but the televised events made us high. We were drunk on the possibilities of science. While waiting for the moment that we planned to describe in detail to our grandchildren, we discussed novels by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and especially Arthur C. Clarke, who had collaborated a year earlier with director Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. We fully expected to make contact with extraterrestrials in our lifetime. But nerding out about an off-planet future was harder to do in 1969. There were fewer touchstones in popular culture: Star Trek was no more than a campy TV show, and Star Wars did not yet exist. Space was not a place but a program, a battleground for the Cold War.
As we imagined it, the United States — not another nation or a unified Earth — would extend its benign, capitalist empire beyond the Van Allen Belts. The inter-galactic overlords would not crush us, as they did in Clarke’s Childhood’s End. We would be reborn as star children, floating in cosmic utero. We would emulate Keir Dullea’s character in 2001. By “we,” I did not mean our grandchildren. I meant us.
In the 19th century, a come-hell-or-high-water imperative to expand US territory was called “Manifest Destiny.” It led to transcontinental Euro-American settlements and the displacement (if not outright genocide) of indigenous peoples. But on July 20, 1969, my classmates and I saw no downside to Manifest Destiny. We felt called to colonize the stars.
The Moon landing was a generational benchmark. In its June/July issue, the AARP magazine published testimonials from boomers ranging from William Shatner (who watched it on a portable TV after the cancellation of Star Trek) to Henry Winkler (who looked up with awe from a competitive Monopoly game) to Ali MacGraw (who clustered with strangers around a TV on a Manhattan sidewalk). MacGraw summed up the hopefulness that many boomers felt. I knew we would be able to “fix [our earthly] problems,” she said, “because of the bravery and promise of what these men are doing!” The magazine titled its roundup: “The Day the World Stopped.”
The world, however, did not stop. And it especially didn’t go in the direction pictured in Kubrick’s 2001, MacGraw’s promising fantasy, or any route that led to US primacy in space. In some ways, this was good. Kubrick’s vision of the 21st century was monstrously sexist: important men traveled regularly on a commercial shuttle to the moon; women served them as decorative flight attendants. Apparently, Kubrick and Clarke could imagine a future with aliens and sentient AI but not with women who were their equals.
What actually happened was this: in 1972, with the Cold War won and public interest waning, NASA ended Apollo and focused on placing astronauts in low Earth orbit. It sent robots to explore the fringes of the solar system. But it kept its astronauts close to home.
This strategy worked well until the 21st century, when newly minted tech billionaires — Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk — sought to realize the sci-fi fantasies that had galvanized them when they were in junior high (perhaps in honors science summer classes). Each had the financial wherewithal to fund equipment and voyages that had previously been beyond an individual’s reach. Other nations also got into the act. Not just the Russians, whom we had “beaten,” but India, Israel, and China. Yes, China. And therein lies the zinger we could not have imagined in 1969. Last January, China took the lead in the new lunar space race, safely landing a robotic probe for the first time ever on the far side of the moon.
This is a long introduction to Piers Bizony’s The NASA Archives: 60 Years in Space, a landmark album of US space exploration. It is a 10-pound, 13-inch-by-13-inch patchwork of lavish photographs, many in full color, with commentary by scholars, sci-fi writers, engineers, journalists, and astronauts. To turn its pages — especially if you were alive during the Apollo years — is to open a floodgate of memories, each one linked to where you were when some astonishing breakthrough occurred. Hence my ineluctable return to 1969.
Although The NASA Archives aspires to be encyclopedic, it is not comprehensive. In his essay for the book, Smithsonian aerospace historian Roger Launius reminds readers that the US space program was not without its moral compromises. It turned a blind eye, for example, to the wartime misdeeds of some Nazi rocket engineers, including former Nazi SS officer Wernher von Braun. But oddly enough, Launius omits an important chapter in US space history — the persecution of the left-leaning rocket engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) during the 1950s Red Scare.
For example, Hsue-Shen Tsien, who became the father of the Chinese space program, did not receive his advanced technical education in China. He studied at MIT and Caltech, where he was hailed as brilliant. He also participated in early rocketry experiments at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech, the precursor to JPL, under the supervision of famed Hungarian aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán. Von Kármán so respected Tsien that when the US Air Force asked him to evaluate Nazi rocket technology at the end of World War II, von Kármán insisted on bringing Tsien with him.
Yet by the early 1950s, when Tsien sought to become a US citizen, his loyalty was questioned — a significant reversal from his ultra-patriotic status as a member of von Kármán’s elite advisory team. The Immigration and Naturalization Service held him under house arrest then forcibly deported him — a decision they may have regretted when he went on to found the Chinese ICBM program, and later, its space program. If Launius had included Tsien’s story — and his justifiable animus toward the United States — the Chinese moon landing might have seemed less startling than inevitable.
To read The NASA Archives is also to think about the future of the United States in space. Recently, to mark the Apollo 11 anniversary, commentators ranging from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (in Politico) and Scientific American writer George Musser (in The American Scholar) have put forth ideas for government-sponsored missions to the Moon and Mars. But just because there is a bandwagon doesn’t mean we have to jump on it. The focused effort of Apollo — more than 400,000 individuals and a few dozen corporations — had a specific goal: defeat the Soviet Union. If that many people and institutions were again directed toward a target, shouldn’t it be something more crucial? Like, say, averting the consequences of human-caused climate change?
Why not leave the Moon and Mars to the billionaires? Let them take the risks. A grueling voyage beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere is more dangerous than a short hop to the International Space Station. Many astronauts will not survive. From the Apollo years, I know how bad it feels when astronauts die. I remember January 27, 1967, more starkly than even the Moon landing. On that day, a fire erupted in the Apollo 1 module during a ground-based test, swiftly incinerating astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
These men weren’t random thrill-seekers, or ill-prepared climbers keeling over on a vanity ascent of Mount Everest. These were our best. They worked for us. We grieved for them. No one seemed prepared for failure. But, as I learned in Bizony’s book, we would not be unprepared again. When Apollo 11 launched, the White House hoped for the best but planned for the worst. It drafted words that blessedly remained unspoken: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.”
Bizony’s book has also reminded me that you don’t need NASA to make memories or inspire the public. Last month — in the wee hours of June 25 — I sat glued to my desktop for the launch from Cape Kennedy of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The rocket, built by Elon Musk’s company, was massive. It was ferrying 24 satellites for different clients. I thought of the summer of 2003, when I traveled to Florida for the launch of the Mars Opportunity Rover on a Delta II Heavy rocket.
Of course, if you’re not on the ground at the Cape, you’re not likely to feel the Earth move. But the virtual experience of a big launch is still amazing. It lifts you up. You forget your petty concerns and become immersed in the countdown, as engineers methodically check each system. Then the rocket jerks upward. It grabs you. You cheer — even if you’re alone in your house on the other side of the country. This is true whether the rocket was built by NASA or by a visionary billionaire. And I look to the billionaires to get us to Mars.
M. G. Lord is the author of Astro Turf, a family memoir of Cold War aerospace culture, which she discusses in the four-part PBS documentary, Blue Sky Metropolis, that premieres this month. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Discover, and Travel + Leisure. She teaches at USC.