THE FAMED POET and musician Gil Scott-Heron responded to the Apollo Moon landing with these words: “A rat done bit my sister Nell / With Whitey on the moon / Her face and arms began to swell / And whitey’s on the moon.” Released on his album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, the year after Neil Armstrong’s triumphant steps on the Moon, the track caught the mood of those American citizens with more pressing problems on their minds. Simply, elegantly, and bitterly, Scott-Heron continued: “The man just upped my rent last night / Cause whitey’s on the moon / No hot water, no toilets, no lights / But whitey’s on the moon.” He concludes on a dare:

Was all that money I made last year
for whitey on the moon?
How come I ain’t got no money here?
Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon
Y’know I just ’bout had my fill
Of whitey on the moon
I think I’ll send these doctor bills, Airmail special
To whitey on the moon.

Scott-Heron’s lament implicitly and explicitly posed a question about Apollo’s authorship: when the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, they left a plaque stating simply, “We came in peace for all mankind.” But who was this “we,” Scott-Heron seemed to ask. Was it the “we” of white middle America of crewcut men in Mission Control Center near Houston, Texas? Or was it the “we” of 125th and Lenox in Harlem, with its very different economic and racial demographics? Moving outward, was it the “we” of the millions across the world who saw the landing on live TV? And did the landing itself represent the zenith of human technical ingenuity, or was it just a pointlessly expensive bombastic gesture that meant very little in the end?

These questions have animated a vast canon of writers, historians, journalists, and memoirists. Indeed, from the moment that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, a nostalgia industry has accrued around Apollo. The cumulative power of this mounting meditation has been to remember, rethink, and recover the original ineffable gloss of optimism of the space race — ad infinitum. With the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in July 2019, the mountain of tomes grows ever larger.

Most books on Apollo have discrete beginning (its conception) and end points (the landing). Apollo began as a pivotal moment in John F. Kennedy’s presidency, when he called on the nation to marshal its grit to “the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.” Laying out the challenge to Congress in a major speech in May 1961, he extolled “this nation [to] commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” That this was a battle of politics rather than an imperative to seek knowledge was not lost on the many tens of thousands who worked for NASA in the 1960s: politics encouraged science and vice versa.

The Apollo program also connected two other narratives redolent of the American century: exceptionalism and technology. Catalyzed by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, and then by its 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human into orbit, Apollo was, to many, a quintessentially American response to being outperformed. The United States would beat the Soviets at their own game, it was said, because America was exceptional in its ability to turn dreams into reality, a myth that drew not only from the cult of the free market but also the worship of modern science and technology.

Apollo, of course, was funded by the federal government, not the free market. At its peak funding in 1966, the space agency was spending nearly four-and-a-half percent of the GDP (it is now at about 0.5 percent). NASA built infrastructure across the world that included mission control, launch sites, tracking stations, engine test stands, astronaut training centers, production facilities, and so forth. Developing, operating, and maintaining the technology involved about 400,000 people from all walks of life, some of whom built the foundation of the Moon program, others involved in the two major programs that preceded Apollo, Mercury and Gemini; the former lofted solo astronauts into orbit in the early 1960s, and the latter helped two-person crews master the complex operations involved in orbiting Earth in the mid-1960s. Both projects were crucial in paving the way to the actual Moon landing.

This said, getting to Apollo was not a smooth ride.

In 1967, the three Apollo 1 astronauts were killed in a fire during a ground test. The fire spurred NASA and its contractor force into adopting stricter standards for design and productions; it also led to two years of frenetic activity. In December 1968, Apollo 8 was launched on the giant Saturn V rocket on an epic and highly risky ride out of Earth orbit, marking the very first time that humans had ventured beyond Earth’s vicinity to another celestial body. The pace was astonishing. With Apollo 9 in March 1969, astronauts tested the ungainly lunar lander in Earth’s orbit. Two months later, the Apollo 10 astronauts conducted a dress rehearsal of the landing, doing everything around the Moon but the actual landing. Finally, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set down on the Moon in their Eagle lander. Armstrong’s step on to the Moon, followed by the memorable exclamation — “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” — were watched in unison by as many as 600 million people all over the Earth, a remarkable achievement in the early days of satellite television.

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How we remember Apollo is the question at the heart of two recent books by professional historians. In the first, Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings by Roger Launius, a former historian at NASA who has also held senior positions at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, explores this issue explicitly. In the second, Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects, Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the National Air & Space Museum, revisits Apollo through its material culture, the detritus of the space age scattered in museums and collections across the world.

Both ask questions with no easy answers. Launius begins with a relatively simple one: “How might we interpret the Apollo adventure in the 21st century, in our postmodern world far removed from that of the late 1960s and early 1970s?” This is not just a question about memory but about legacy. Launius suggests that the triumphalist thread of Apollo — American exceptionalism triumphing during the Cold War — is the dominant narrative of the Moon landings.

Counternarratives, however, have periodically punctured this sanguine view, as he acknowledges. Indeed, Gil Scott-Heron, quoted in my opening, is hardly alone in his critique. Apollo, some critics have said, was a waste of national resources when the nation was racked with problems of inequality, poverty, racism, and sexism. Others have argued that Apollo actually exacerbated these problems by diverting American attention away from real-world issues; it was an expensive boondoggle that fed the egos of the white men in charge of the space program. Launius calls this the “left” critique of Apollo. He pairs it with a “right” critique, made by a number of political and academic commentators through the 1980s who argued that Apollo was a waste of state resources. In this reading, Apollo was the perfect exemplar of bloated big government spending and ought to have been left to private enterprise. A final strand in the afterlife of Apollo, one that waxes and wanes but taps into a deeper strand of American conspiracy theorizing, simply denies that it ever happened; the Apollo Moon landings are represented as, in Launius’s words, “products of some deep-seated plot or as part of a larger militarization scheme aimed at world domination.” He confronts and dismisses this last view, commenting simply that mass media’s eagerness to make money out of sensationalism has exacerbated the conspiratorial afterlife of Apollo. He does not address the alarming fact that the YouTube generation has intensified the ability of non-experts to spread false information, now armed with knowing winks and expert CGI simulations far surpassing the crude tools of conspiracy theorists of the ’70s.

What he does do, in crisp and lucid writing, is travel through a broad swath of American culture to chase down the most entrenched interpretation of Apollo, often shared in Congressional hearings or among space advocates, that Americans in the 1960s were generally united in their support of the Moon program. This is a myth, he tells us. In 1967, a New York Times poll found that the population of six American cities believed that “five other public issues [held] priority over efforts in outer space, including air and water pollution, job training for unskilled workers, national beatifications, and poverty.” In many ways, this misplaced belief that Apollo once had a consensus of support has had an insidious effect on current space politics, since this axiom has been invoked repeatedly to justify visionary goals or lament the lack of them.

Casualties actually extended beyond those of the astronauts killed in training. Launius describes the fate of Joseph F. Shea, Apollo program manager at Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center. He was among those blamed and ultimately fired for the Apollo 1 accident that killed three astronauts. More than two decades after the fact, Shea was still obsessed with the fire; once, as Launius recalls, he had a breakdown in a highly public meeting, becoming incoherent, defensive, and full of recrimination. His life transformed by the accident, the landing did little to assuage his guilt and trauma.

In elucidating the imagery produced by Apollo, Launius devotes special attention to analyzing iconic photographs repeatedly shown in the media, such as that of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon with photographer Neil Armstrong’s visage reflected in his visor. This and other images of astronauts, flags, and machinery on the Moon have held sway over the cultural imagination, argues Launius, because they embodied juxtapositions: “The Apollo images represent what Roland Barthes referred to […] as […] ‘the copresence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world’.” This copresence is most starkly embodied in images of astronauts doing the most mundane activity, walking, but in the most otherworldly place imaginable, the surface of the Moon. Launius also alludes, albeit all-too-briefly, to images that expose a darker antecedent to modern-day space travel: centuries-old Eurocentric colonial practices. For many indigenous populations, as well as non-Americans, Apollo was nothing more than an echo of conquest and colonialism. A nation driven in the 1960s largely by militaristic imperatives, and harnessing modern military technology to send its agents to new geographical frontiers, necessarily evokes troubling archetypes of violence and dispossession. The Vietnam War’s horrors loom like a dark shadow over the successes of the space program, with many of the same companies building both weapons for Vietnam and rockets for NASA. Launius could have made the ways in which Apollo’s technological wizardry concealed its more invidious meanings far more central to his book.

In a concluding chapter on the religious overtones of the space program, Launius notes that “Apollo represented as much as anything else a spiritual quest, a purification of humanity, and a search for absolution and immortality.” Perhaps. Many who invest, support, and extol the value of space exploration often speak in millenarian tones. This is nowhere more evident than in the current-day libertarian-flavored belief in space exploration, embodied by the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who spend billions on such programs, spouting economic benefits that are nebulous or unsubstantiated at best. Both depend on Apollo as their inspiration. Musk, for example, often talks about “the continuance of the dream of Apollo that […] people are really looking for” while also freely using the language of conquest and occupation (“Occupy Mars”), and of meddling with the natural order by terraforming Mars. Musk takes what he needs from Apollo but adds a distinctly anti-government flavor in the manner of the “right”-ward critique of Apollo. For all their fealty to Apollo’s achievements, Apollo’s children — Musk and his fans — dream of colonizing space through capitalism, or put differently: they dream of a perfect cult of capitalism in space.

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At first glance, Muir-Harmony’s Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects seems to echo tropes that deify Apollo with clichés about American exceptionalism, capitalism, and technology. The title lacks promise, echoing the headings of a recent torrent of coffee-table history books framed around an arbitrary number of artifacts. Inside its covers, glossy pages feature the all-too-obvious referents of Apollo: parts of the giant engine that powered the Saturn V rocket, recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic by a team funded by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos; remnants of the parachutes that brought the Apollo capsule through the Earth’s atmosphere to splash down in the ocean; the wheel of a ground test version of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, the car that astronauts drove on the Moon on later missions; a Swedish Hasselblad camera used by astronauts that took some of the most iconic images of Earth; and of course, the Moon rocks.

But this book is, in fact, much more than a compendium of gorgeous photographs of iconic objects in stasis. Through her particular selection of non-obvious, non-iconic objects, Muir-Harmony gestures to the stories and backstories that haven’t been told about the Apollo mission. Consider a captivating entry on the American flag and flagpole. We learn that this creation, designed as it was for the surface of the Moon, required the work of several NASA divisions tasked with building a compact object capable of unfurling in space’s vacuum while also withstanding a temperature of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. State Department officials debated the wisdom of having an American flag on the Moon given a UN treaty banning any national claims. In the end, largely due to Congressional pressure, the Stars and Stripes prevailed. Here, the flag represents a perfect material distillation of Apollo: a complicated technical artifact produced from the politics of multiple claims and ultimately designed for national spectacle.

Other entries reveal little-known facts about comic human-in-space indignities: when astronaut Buzz Aldrin jumped from the ladder to the Moon’s surface, he broke his urine bag (one of the objects presented here), thus flooding his left boot with urine. Muir-Harmony is happy to assure us that “[e]ach subsequent step Aldrin took on the lunar surface sloshed.”

It is in the less obvious artifacts that the book pushes against the triumphalist and technophilic narratives of Apollo. An entry on the company jacket worn by an engineer in the 1960s provides a brief social history of the rank-and-file behind Apollo, especially the massive numbers of contractors from private enterprise. Such stories also convey a sense of the social dislocation at the heart of Apollo, as thousands of families migrated to their new jobs across the country. In another inspired choice, Muir-Harmony draws in the material culture of the space age, including, as one of her objects, a plastic scale-model toy of Apollo built by Airfax in England. The presentation of such toys, which inspired a generation of young people to imagine their own place in the space future, also gestures to generational disappointment, when the Jetsons-future once promised failed to materialize.

One of the most striking inclusions is a “contribution can” from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the leading organizations in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and closely identified with Martin Luther King Jr. At the Apollo 11 launch in July 1969, a 500-strong group from the SCLC led by Reverend Ralph Abernathy Sr., King’s successor, appeared to protest what they saw as the profoundly misguided use of taxpayer money given the urgent problems in American society. This small tin object is, then, a powerful indicator that many Americans saw the space program as a salve for the military-industrial complex and the white men controlling it.

Muir-Harmony reminds us that these white men — represented usually by the Midwestern straight-arrow astronaut archetype — were not the only contributors to Apollo’s success. Her book gives space to previously hidden figures such as Margaret Hamilton, who helped write the software for Apollo; Rita M. Rapp, who headed NASA’s Apollo Food System team; Egyptian-American Farouk El-Baz, who advised astronauts on lunar geology; and George R. Carruthers, an African-American scientist who designed surface experiments for the Apollo 16 mission. Positioning their achievements as on par with those of former Nazi rocket designer Wernher von Braun and John F. Kennedy subverts received wisdom.

The book also highlights the geography of Apollo: the manufacturing sites of the artifacts suggest a parallel narrative, where Apollo happened not on the Moon but in small towns and suburbs across the United States. Forgotten in all our media-friendly stories (where Houston and Florida loom large) is the fact that much of the material reality of Apollo emerged from small-town USA. The litany of locations invoked here leaves implicit an unwritten history of Apollo whose itinerary includes: Binghamton, New York (simulators); Hartford, Connecticut (astronaut survival kit); Huntsville, Alabama (Saturn V instrument unit); Downey, California (Apollo 11 Command Module); Toledo, Ohio (Apollo 11 mission emblem); St. Joseph, Michigan (meals for the astronauts); Dover, Delaware (spacesuit maker); and Wilmington, Massachusetts (spacecraft heat shield). This history of the space race on Earth, with one generation’s upward mobility and empowerment coupled with, and complicated by, social, economic, and environmental dislocation remains largely unremembered and untold. This book may help spawn new histories.

If Apollo was ultimately a project that belonged to small-town America, it was also a global enterprise — not only because of the Swedish cameras and Swiss watches used by astronauts, or the large number of German and Canadian immigrants involved, but also in the way infrastructure to support Apollo dotted the global landscape. Here, the book comes up short. It could have included the remnants of NASA’s Manned Space Flight Network strewn across places such as the Caribbean, Ascension Island (in the southern Atlantic), Australia, Guam, Peru, and Spain, for example. Other support stations in Nigeria and Kiribati for pre-Apollo missions generated considerable friction with locals, while the Pretoria station in apartheid South Africa demanded moral compromise. A station in Zanzibar had to be evacuated in 1964 due to civil unrest and moved to Madagascar. It, too, shut down in 1975 when its new Marxist government demanded an annual $1 million in rent, retroactive to 1963, for hosting a NASA station, which NASA refused to pay for. Objects from these areas might have helped tell an even more against-the-American-triumphalist-grain story of Apollo, one that recovers its often-disruptive footprint in many postcolonial locales.

Historian of technology David Nye has written that “the meaning of a tool is inseparable from the stories that surround it.” Muir-Harmony has produced a surprisingly subversive set of stories around these 50 artifacts. As with all coffee-table books, it has an ornamental function but it also reinvests the received story — full of men, machines, and manifest destiny — with other spaces, other actors, and other imperatives. In selecting and then situating these 50 objects in a single narrative, she is suggesting that we rethink Apollo beyond the contours of its technoscientific domain. “Artifacts make Project Apollo more than memory alone; they make it a palpable, and visitable part of our present,” she notes in the final sentence of the book. In that sense, this tangible object, her book, is a fine place to begin to understand Apollo.

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Asif Siddiqi is professor of History at Fordham University. He is the author of Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974.