Rethinking Apollo

Flying to the moon was among the most notable technological achievements of the entire twentieth century, or at least the most noted. Even today, scan the culture for references to the Apollo program and you'll it everywhere: from clips in music videos (music television network MTV's first moments of broadcast in 1981 were a picture of Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 superimposed with the MTV logo;the icon remains the basis for the network's Video Music Award statuette) to repeated calls for a new Apollo project to solve one or another of society's ills. I recently looked up from my seat on a subway to see the Apollo motto, ''For All Mankind,'' emblazoned on the derriere of a pair of designer jeans.

Even a casual bibliography has hundreds of entries. Ever conscious of its public image, NASA documented and wrote Apollo's own history in parallel with the project itself, producing numerous informative, if ponderous, volumes on everything from the spacecraft to the launch pads and the lunar science experiments.7 NASA has also conducted hundreds of oral history interviews, from the beginnings of Apollo up to the present day. Those collected during the 1960s provide immediate, primary insights into the project, while those collected more recently document the participants' memories.

Of the twelve men who walked on the moon, at least eight have written, or have had ghostwritten, some kind of memoir, and numerous other Apollo crew members have chimed in as well.8 Lately the ground controllers have gotten into the act, with similar, though delayed, levels of public interest and attention.9 One account used interviews with engineers to tell the story of the technical people behind the scenes.10 A few of Apollo's engineers have added their own stories as well.11 Numerous other popular accounts cover the project from a variety of angles;one was even made into a TV mini-series, following on the successful feature film Apollo 13.12

With shelves straining from all this Apollo material, what could possibly be left to say? To begin with, histories of the Apollo program are nearly all project oriented— they begin at Apollo's beginning and end at its end. Other than personal background in memoirs, little is said about Apollo's connection to larger currents in the history of twentieth-century technology. The technical histories focus on hardware and description, with little broader analysis.

Those histories that provide ''context'' tend to be political or cultural, and don't delve into the machines themselves, the people who built them, or what they meant.13 Hence they solidify the canonical narrative of the project around key themes and events: Kennedy's visionary decision, the frenetic engineering efforts, the triumphs of the astronauts, the tragic fire, the triumph of Apollo 11, the drama of Apollo 13, and so on.

Most Apollo histories adopt a heroic tone, retelling how the skill and cunning of the astronauts, ground controllers, and engineers brought the mission to a safe, successful conclusion, sometimes in the face of bureaucratic incompetence or technical failures. Heroic stories have been with us for a long time, at least since Homer, and play important cultural roles. Heroic narratives follow a prescribed ''cycle,'' with a variety of stages in which the hero matures and proves himself—think of the labors of Hercules, or the island challenges of Odysseus.14 The astronauts' stories, which vary widely in quality and interest, tend to follow a similar pattern—the boyish fascination with flight, early military service, transition to test piloting, miraculous selection by NASA, rigorous training, climactic moments of judgment and skill at critical points in the flight. Historian Asif Siddiqi calls them ''nosecone histories'' for their limited views of the projects they describe, yet they still carry cultural weight because of the ''there I was . . .'' character and the astronauts' lingering heroic public image.15

The human-machine relationships of Apollo both reflected and shaped the political and cultural goals of the program and the machines themselves. Sometimes technical decisions threatened the centrality of the human pilot. At other times they left key tasks to human skill and judgment. At no time, however, did some abstract set of technical requirements uniquely define the human role. Engineers and astronauts, as well as journalists and policymakers, constantly debated the appropriate tasks for the spacecrafts' human operators, continuing conversations rooted in the earliest days of aviation.

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