One of the crucial functions of a society’s intellectual leadership is to articulate the meaning of important cultural events, to guide the public in understanding their significance.
The 50th anniversary of man’s first footstep on the moon is just such an event and has occasioned much commentary. I’ve been fascinated by inspiring discussions of the ahead-of-their-time technologies developed by the companies that contributed to Apollo and the exciting reports on the current status of private space ventures.1
But I’ve also been shocked and dismayed at the commentary exploring the moral and philosophical significance of the Apollo program — the question of whether, and how, it affected our view of man’s nature and his place in the universe.
One of the themes I’m seeing is the idea that Apollo “launched the environmental movement.” The photos of Earth taken from space by the Apollo astronauts showed us — so we’re told — just how “small and fragile” our planet is. Supposedly, this gave us a wake-up call about our own insignificance and unimportance relative to the vastness of the cosmos.2
What about the unprecedented feat of safely blasting men into space on a rocket, sending them a quarter million miles away to walk on the moon, and bringing them unharmed back to Earth? Do our culture’s intellectual voices have nothing to say about the philosophical meaning of that awe-inspiring achievement?
Fortunately, Ayn Rand had a lot to say about the deeper lessons to be drawn from Apollo’s “giant leap for mankind.” If you take the time to read anything on the occasion of this anniversary, one article not to be missed is Rand’s essay “Apollo 11.” It couples her eyewitness account of the July 16, 1969, launch with an analysis of the entire Apollo mission’s philosophic significance.
Here is a brief taste:
What we had seen, in naked essentials — but in reality, not in a work of art — was the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness. . . .
One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human — with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur — that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel — not “How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!” — but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”
That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt — this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned, numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being — an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.
The “fundamental lesson to be learned from the triumph of Apollo 11,” Rand writes, is that “nothing on earth or beyond it is closed to the power of man’s reason.”
Unfortunately, few people have learned that lesson, neither in Rand’s time nor in ours. In “Apollo 11” (and in a follow-up essay, “Epitaph for a Culture”) Rand discusses the widely varying reactions to the moon landing. She argues that they offered “a significant demonstration of the breach between the American people and the intellectuals.”3
In her analysis, the popular reaction consisted of “eager, smiling faces that looked up to the flight of Apollo 11” seeking “the spiritual fuel of knowing that man the hero is possible.” But the dominant themes among her intellectual contemporaries — which are similar to those we see today — consisted of a concerted effort to undermine that perspective.
For instance, Rand was already seeing, fifty years ago, the idea being floated that “Apollo’s greatest contribution” is the awakening of environmentalism.4 Commenting on the notion that the photos of Earth made people feel that it’s a “small and fragile sphere,” Rand writes: “I do not personally know anyone who felt that way, but it has certainly been a stressed, pushed, well-press-agented sentiment, then and since.”5
But Rand’s primary purpose in writing “Apollo 11” was not to criticize its critics, but to salute its heroes. “The most inspiring aspect of Apollo 11’s flight,” she writes,
was that it made such abstractions as rationality, knowledge, science perceivable in direct, immediate experience. That it involved a landing on another celestial body was like a dramatist’s emphasis on the dimensions of reason’s power: it is not of enormous importance to most people that man lands on the moon, but that man can do it, is.
Invited by NASA to attend the Apollo 11 launch, Rand had a rare opportunity to do eyewitness reporting, to apply her skill — honed by decades of writing literary masterpieces — at vividly conveying an event’s perceptual quality and emotional impact.
I recommend reading Rand’s article and then seeing the recently released documentary Apollo 11 — which used only archival footage, some of it never-before released. It made Rand’s article come alive for me by giving me the sense that I was seeing on film the very sights and scenes that she had reported on firsthand.
Of the many articles Rand penned, she once listed “Apollo 11” as one of her own personal favorites: “I love ‘Apollo 11’ for its literary quality and its theme: in today’s context, it was my one opportunity to discuss a great event.”
Remarkably, it was also a favorite of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins! He wrote to Rand in November 1969 to tell her that he “thought the article was probably the best I have read on Apollo XI.”
A fitting tribute to one of the most important achievements of the 20th century, Rand’s “Apollo 11” is required reading on its 50th anniversary.
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A similar sentiment was expressed decades after the Apollo program when, from a distance of 4 billion miles, the Voyager 1 probe sent back its famous image of Earth as a “pale, blue dot.” Astronomer Carl Sagan — who in his best moments inspired many with his exuberant passion for science — said, in one of his worst moments:
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. . . . There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
- Ayn Rand, “Epitaph for a Culture,” in The Voice of Reason (New York: Meridian, 1990), 184.
- John Noble Wilford, “Meaning of Apollo: The Future Will Decide,” New York Times, Dec. 21, 1972.
- Rand, “Epitaph for a Culture,” 180.
- “The best way to study philosophy is to approach it as one approaches a detective story. A detective seeks to discover the truth about a crime. A philosophical detective must seek to determine the truth or falsehood of an abstract system and thus discover whether he is dealing with a great achievement or an intellectual crime.” Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York, Signet, 1984), 12.