Sunday, June 10, 2007


Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey
by Michael Collins
Ballantine Books, 1975

Michael Collins, command module pilot for Apollo 11, produces better results than most professional nonfiction scribblers and does it without using a ghost writer. He’s likable, snarky, and honest; surely this is the best-written of all the astronaut books. Particularly relevant, over 30 years after the book’s appearance — especially since President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration in 2004 — is his take on whether we should have sent anyone to the Moon at all.

Gemini 10 crew, July 18, 1966:
John Young, Michael Collins (at right).


Collins favors the Vitamin F theory: frontiers make societies healthy, we need one, space is it. He is a more articulate exponent of this view than, say, Robert Zubrin (de facto leader of today’s Mars-colonization movement), and never radiates Zubrin’s over-the-top messianism, but his talking points are much the same: Columbus, the old West, the expansive essence of humanness. Speaking of the American frontier, he writes: “Some people were never content to huddle in protective little clumps along the East Coast, but pushed westward as boldly as circumstances permitted. When horizontal exploration met its limits, it was time to try the vertical, and thus has it been since, ever higher and faster.”

It’s not surprising that an astronaut sees space travel as the cutting edge of human history. With cosmologists it’s cosmology, with evolutionary biologists it's evolutionary biology, with computer scientists it's artificial intelligence, with postmodern culture scholars it’s postmodernism. Would morticians nominate embalming, sanitary engineers garbage-collecting? Perhaps not: some professions discourage self-importance by their very nature.

Despite what Collins says, the people back East weren’t “huddling” in 1850. They were living the usual various, vivid, ridiculous, heroic, dastardly range of lives that people have always lived. A few, like Henry Thoreau, were exploring a completely different kind of frontier while the Indian-killers and land-stealers were pushing so boldly westward—a frontier that anyone could tackle, even without (especially without) a Conestoga wagon or a Saturn V booster under their butt. Even in old, gray, frontierless Europe, life was not exactly empty of interest: while we were busy conquering Florida and Kansas, the British bourgeoisie were busy inventing the novel.

No. It won’t do, because it’s not historically true: there is no inherent virtue in frontiers. When our intake of Vitamin F was at its height we were spoiling the land, reaming the Indians, raping Africa, staggering pell-mell toward the Civil War. And regardless of whether our frontier days were a period of moral and democratic glory, which they weren’t, their mass migrations and resettlements bear at most a weak analogical resemblance to the “ever higher and faster” records set by aerospace technology over the last half-century — the propulsion of a few unusual people like Collins via ever more expensive, destructive, and wasteful machines to ever more titillating altitudes until, after Apollo, the inevitable undignified slippage back down the impossibly steep curve of exponential difficulty. (A round trip to the Moon takes a week; a round trip to Mars would take two years.) Space travel can never be an option for large numbers of people: that is as technically impossible as giving everyone on Earth a mansion the size of Manhattan. “Now we have the capability to leave the planet,” Collins writes, “and I think we should give careful consideration to taking that option”—but what you mean we, Kimosabe? No “we” that I, or anyone I know, belongs to. Ditto for about 6.5 billion other folks.

Collins falls into an interesting self-contradiction on the question of Vitamin F. First he expresses head-shaking bafflement at the possibility, articulated after Apollo 11 by Harvard University biochemist Dr. George Wald, that young people might “see in this an exercise of the old and well-entrenched, an exercise in great wealth and power, heavy with military and political overtones. I am afraid that they will feel a little more trapped; a little more disillusioned, a little more desperate.” Collins comments: “I am shocked to think that what we have done causes anyone to feel ‘disillusioned’, much less ‘desperate’ . . . [This] defeats me completely. I hope it’s not a widespread attitude; I simply cannot believe that it is” (458).

He should have tried harder. Is it really impossible to imagine that young people might be depressed by the claim, feverishly trumpeted and celebrated across our society from TV to headlines to ticker-tape parades, that humanity’s finest, freshest hope is a place few of us will ever see? Is it odd to be discouraged by the thought that the greatest triumphs of the human spirit will henceforth depend on hierarchic federal bureaucracies, humungous corporations, and throwaway high-tech marvels the size of skyscrapers? What’s my place on the great new frontier? Drive my little commute, pay my little taxes, cheer my little cheer as the picked handful blasts skyward? That youthful sense of entrapment that Collins finds so inexplicable is the frontier spirit he thinks he believes in. It’s the frontier spirit fighting for its life against the space mystique’s implication that most of us can have nothing to do with the future except to be left behind by it — after helping pay for it.

Self-contradiction appears a few pages later, when Collins contemplates the Apollo 11 astronauts’ own post-coital letdown. He views Buzz Aldrin’s severe depression after Apollo — Aldrin was the second man to walk on the Moon—as caused by lifelong parental pressure and the lack of anything big to follow the Moon trip: “Suddenly it is over: Buzz the pilot fish has been thrown clear of the shark Apollo and is swimming around, desperately looking for another streamlined creature of speed and danger to attach himself to. There aren’t any, Buzz . . .” (470). As for himself: “I share with [Buzz] a mild melancholy about future possibilities, for it seems to me that the list of exciting things to do here on earth has diminished greatly in the wake of the lunar landings. I just can’t get excited about things the way I could before Apollo 11; I seem gripped by an earthly ennui which I don’t relish, but which I seem powerless to prevent” (471).

Strange that Collins cannot see Aldrin's depression and his own ennui, his own sense of diminished earthly possibility, as illuminating the unease of others. The stimulant properties of human space “exploration” — which I put in quotes because astronauts can only fly to places that have already been mapped in detail by remote control — are inevitably temporary. Human space flights are not ground-gaining leaps but gravity-defying stunts, and it is the nature of stunts to end and, if repeated, to pall. It is no mystery that the later Apollo missions were yawned at by the same millions who went nuts over the first one. The dialectic of pleasure decrees the inevitable rise and fall of all flowery, showy joys that cannot take root in everyday life.

Nor let’s forget the money. Collins answers the claim that “it is immoral to support exploration while our cities rot” by arguing that exploration “cannot be examined on an either/or basis, that our national economic and budgetary process prevents the simple transfer of funds from one project to another, that without a space program our cities would still rot” (473–4). But “simple transfer” is a straw man. Resource competition is real, even if “simple transfer” isn't. Federal money spent in one place adds to the pressure against spending money in all other places. NASA’s human-spaceflight budget and (far worse) the military budget have indeed helped rot our cities, not to mention our farmlands and our wildernesses. They have narrowed our choices and dimmed our prospects and starved real space exploration, the robotic kind (e.g., Voyager). But, alas, it would take an honesty even more extraordinary than Collins’s—and he is honest, and I like him, and I am deeply fascinated by the program in which he participated—to acknowledge that the effort that shot him around the Moon and put his name in the history books was paid for by cheating the hopes and needs of others.

Surprisingly, Collins advances the silly chestnut that seeing Earth from above would make people less nationalistic: “I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say, 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silence.” Exactly what H.G. Wells and others said in the early days of airplanes, which have brought us mostly strategic bombing, New Zealand raspberries in January, and highly polluting, spiritually dead globetrotting for the middle-class masses. (Yeah, I’ve done it too.) Collins buys the no-borders-from-above myth because he buys the core fallacy of the space movement — the notion that spiritual realities are shaped by physical situations. Go West, young man, to be a better young man. Fly higher, young woman, to be a better young woman. Blast high enough to see all men as ants and you will understand that all men are brothers. But it has never worked that way, and it never will.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I've sometimes wondered about the transformative power of Apollo earth-portraits. Evidently, "spiritually dead globetrotting for the middle-class masses" may have predated the airplane. H. D. Thoreau seemed to have a real issue with "travel". Maybe he was jealous about being stuck in Concord, but I like the critique regardless. I think Melville gave a little jab at "seeing the world" early in Moby Dick.