Moon Men

In a book called The People, Yes, the American poet Carl Sandburg has a little girl look up at the night and ask:  “Papa, what is the moon supposed to advertise?”

Twenty-five years ago, the whole world looked up at the moon, and knew the answer to that question.  It advertised America.

The plaque Armstrong and Aldrin planted may have talked about coming “in peace for all mankind,” but the flag they unfurled – the first flag that would never blow in the wind – was the Stars and Stripes.  America has been there, done that.

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 landing was the apogee of American accomplishment, a supremely symbolic act.  It was a demonstration of hardware, money and courage.  The astronauts themselves were Marlboro men in pressure suits: civil servants with nerves of steel.  This was the work of the people who invented Big Science and High Noon.

But it was also the work of the nation that invented Big Advertising.  Even at the time, skeptics muttered about how the space program was just like America: it was big and expensive and dangerous, and it lacked any true sense of purpose beyond its own manic enthusiasm for itself.

In a poem titled “Moon Landing,” W.H. Auden likened the astronauts to the mythic heroes of antiquity, not an altogether original comparison since it occurred to the crewcuts who named the project Apollo in the first place.  Auden, however, added the caveat that “Hector was excused the insult of having his valor covered by television.”  The distinguished poetic curmudgeon thought the presence of cameras bespoke, in his phrase, “our lack of decorum.”

This is one of the few examples of Auden getting it utterly wrong.  For a start, Hector was a war hero, exalted not simply because he braved death but because he dealt death to others.  The only lives the astronauts risked were their own.

Nor was there anything remotely indecorous about lugging a television camera to the moon.  In fact, without live TV pictures from the surface, there would have been no reason to go there.  The pictures themselves were grainy and stodgy and badly composed.  In retrospect, they look like the world’s first lousy home videos.  But those images – the real-time surveillance of someone else’s jeopardy a world away – made everyone who was watching feel collectively alive.  That’s what puts the life into live coverage.

And that’s what Ted Turner recognized before anyone else.  CNN lives to recreate the sort of communal excitement that the space program served up to an entire generation.  Auden also wrote that “from the moment the first flint was flaked this landing was merely a matter of time.”  True enough.  But from the round-the-clock coverage of the landing at Tranquility Base to the live saturation broadcasts of the O.J. Simpson saga is an equally inevitable trajectory.  This, too, has been just a matter of time.

And human beings may well return to the moon one day, but not simply for the glory of nation states.  The next moon shot will require corporate sponsorship, and the astronauts of the future are going to look like Indy-car drivers, their pressure suits plastered with logos for Marlboro and Valvoline.  Twenty-five years ago, Apollo 11 celebrated the achievement of the American spirit.  The next moon landing will be brought to you by

  • CBC Radio July 20, 1994