Our journey to the moon took us a long way from Earth, but it was always tangled up with power politics here on the ground.
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As a science-fiction writer, I am often asked to comment on our failure to live up to the grand visions conjured by the Apollo program and the science fiction of half a century ago. After all, no human being has returned to the moon, there are no space colonies and we are no closer to universal peace. Are we too mired in our petty politics to lift up our eyes to the stars? Should we be disappointed in ourselves?
On Dec. 7, 1972, one of the astronauts aboard Apollo 17, the last moon mission with a crew, looked back at Earth and took a picture with his Hasselblad camera. “The Blue Marble” was the first portrait of the whole planet taken in a single shot. You have probably seen this image countless times. What is not as well known is that the image has been flipped. The original photograph, taken by a man in zero gravity, where “up” and “down” had no meaning, showed the globe in a perspective unfamiliar to most: Antarctica at the top, and Africa and the Arabian Peninsula below.
The original “Blue Marble” was in many ways more reflective of what it truly meant to see our planet from an unprecedented vantage point in space, upending our expectations and Western cartographic conventions. But it was tamed and processed for distribution, the territory made to fit the map. The manipulation was symptomatic of the way the high ideals of space exploration are inextricably entwined with the limitations of our history and politics.
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The entire Apollo program was steeped in this same tension between idealistic universalism — “one giant leap for mankind” — and the mundane political realities that made it possible — a Cold War propaganda effort in the shadow of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. The Apollo astronauts, who raced to beat the Soviet effort, left hundreds of objects on the moon. One of these, a disc containing goodwill messages that was placed in the Sea of Tranquillity by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, provides a perfect snapshot of the internal contradictions of Apollo 11 and the missions that followed.
The disc, about the size of a half-dollar, was crafted at the Worcester, Mass., plant of Sprague Electric Company. Messages from four American presidents and the leaders of 73 countries, solicited by NASA and the State Department, were photographed and then shrunk 200 times so that each was not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. The “dots” were then etched into a silicon disc using the same photolithographic process as integrated electronic circuitry.
The presidential statements set a tone of high-minded nobility. “We are determined that space shall be an avenue toward peace and we both invite and welcome all men to join with us in this great opportunity,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson, who advanced the mission proposed by President John F. Kennedy. Richard M. Nixon, president at the moment of the landing, asked, “What could bring home to us more the limitations of the human scale than the hauntingly beautiful picture of our earth seen from the moon?”
But the invitation to deliver a message of good will was not, in reality, extended to all humanity. The roster of world leaders on the disc represented, with few exceptions, America’s alliances during that period in the Cold War. The leaders crafted their messages simultaneously for the stars as well as contemporary sublunary political audiences.
Some leaders, such as Jim Fouché of the apartheid government in South Africa, took the opportunity to be associated with the Apollo program to provide cover for abuses. Others, while congratulating the American people and the astronauts, used the platform mainly to promote the accomplishments of their own governments. Among these statements could now be read potential rebukes of the militaristic priorities of the United States, such as the one presented by Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, prime minister of Guyana: “We are embarked on the challenging task of abolishing disease and poverty from our midst, and of developing our economy so that it can support a worthy level of living for our people.”
Messages of peace from exiled leaders of nations under Soviet occupation were poignant. Anatols Dinbergs of Latvia spoke of how the moon landing would contribute to the “restoration of freedom to all nations.”
But the words of dictators allied with the United States felt distinctly less principled. Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China and Park Chung-hee of South Korea, who both freely employed torture and murder to maintain control, presumed to speak for their captive populations in lofty platitudes, invoking “world utopia” and “justice, freedom, and unity” with little irony.
However, a totalitarian leader would occasionally betray his nature, as when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu of Congo (before he was known as Mobutu Sese Seko) claimed the mission of the Apollo 11 astronauts as his own, which he described as “the conquest of space in order to make man its master.” (The common use of the metaphor of conquest for a mission of peace seemed to strike few leaders at the time as discordant.)
President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz of Mexico looked to history for lessons applicable for the occasion. “In 1492, the discovery of the American Continent transformed geography and the course of human events,” he said, and then drew a parallel between that event and the “conquest of ultraterrestrial space.” It is chilling, to say the least, to see the tens of millions who inhabited pre-Columbian America and their ancient civilizations erased in order to justify a comparison to the lifeless moon. Not only would future images of Earth be skewed, so would history.
(Speaking of people on the moon, President William V. S. Tubman of Liberia had some speculations, asking the astronauts “to bear this message to the inhabitants of the Moon if they find any there.”)
Today, these messages, often eloquent and inspiring, but also self-serving, bombastic, shortsighted and outdated, remind us how difficult it is to disentangle the messy present from the aspirational future, to separate the realization of the potential of the human spirit from the need to appease less noble motivations.
The Apollo program gave us a chance to see Earth as we never had. But that view had to be manipulated to fit our expectations. When the Apollo astronauts stepped onto the moon, they were representatives of the entire human species, but they also carried a disc filled with propaganda reflecting one side in a world not at all at peace.
History haunts us still. Today, as the United States, China, India, Israel, Russia and other countries announce plans for missions to the moon, the rhetoric and analyses are always bound up with national rivalries. Could it be that something like the Apollo program could be possible only when our nation is driven by the thirst for conquest, not so much of our baser instincts, but to triumph over our (very human) enemies? If such is the case, would we be better off making no progress toward the stars at all?
I think, or rather hope, that view is too pessimistic. The simultaneous inclusion of nobler and baser instincts is inevitable when mortal beings undertake projects whose full meaning cannot be understood in their life spans. Even with a skewed perspective, even with compromises to the ugly realities of the Cold War, there is no questioning the shiver of wonder we all feel when we watch Armstrong take that first step on the moon.
Guyana’s prime minister, by no means a model leader in action, nonetheless had perhaps the right words: “We do not know what shall be the judgment of history but we would be well pleased if on some later day when this is read, it is said of us that we strove greatly to advance the dignity of all men.”
Ken Liu is the author of “The Dandelion Dynasty” trilogy and “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.” He is also a lawyer and programmer, and speaks on topics such as futurism, cryptocurrency and the history of books.
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