Spacecraft and Symbolism

As different as they were, Michael Collins shared one characteristic with Roscoe Turner: both were on display. Turner flew in an age when aviation's commercial potential had yet to be realized, when the airplane remained a dazzling curiosity and most professional pilots earned a livelihood through entertainment. By Collins's day a pilot could make a living with more prosaic tasks like flying airliners;however, the astronauts, like Turner, worked with a technology of unclear civilian utility but whose imagery captivated the attention of the press, the public, and the state.

Put a human being inside a rocket, add the resonance of a journey into the blackness of space with all its allusions to the heavens and the long history of human fascination with the stars, and one has a technology that linked humankind's most earthly, practical endeavors (fuels, oxidizers, pipes, breathing, eating, shitting) to its most lofty ambitions.

None of the symbolic power of spaceflight was lost on the visionaries who promoted the space program, the politicians who supported it, the press who reported it, or the public who consumed the news about it. They very consciously built symbols as well as spacecraft.

In creating that symbolism, the Kennedy administration drew on American imagery of exploration, individualism, and geographical conquest to sell Apollo to the press and to Congress. Kennedy seized on the most powerful mythology in American history, the frontier narrative, and reopened it by aiming for the moon. Within this framing, the endeavor had all the elements of a classic frontier adventure: an unknown, but conquerable geography full of lurking dangers, even villainous antagonists—the competing Soviets.

Most important, the frontier narrative called upon heroic pioneers. The press may have been biased against large government projects (delighting in exposing waste and fraud), but they were heavily biased in favor of individual, human tales. Human presence made spaceflight into a story. For the American public, that story involved people who embodied American virtues, from humility and self-control to self-reliance and creativity, ''part Davy Crockett and part Buck Rogers.''19 And for that story to be credible, the astronauts had to be in control. Frontiersmen could not be passengers.

Imagery of active pilots pervaded Apollo, but coexisted with another, subtler trend. The moon project resonated within a culture deeply concerned with the social implications of technology. It was conceived in the wake of Russia's Sputnik success and in the early Kennedy years when large-scale science and technical and managerial projects seemed to promise solutions to political problems. But Apollo unfolded in the era of Vietnam, 1960s counterculture, and increasing questioning of the social benefits of large technological systems. Commentators worried about the phenomenon of ''de-skilling'' as computerized machine tools transformed work on the factory floor.20 In his speeches and writings, for example, Martin Luther King frequently mentioned automation as a cause of the social displacements he was seeking to redress. Even NASA director James Webb suggested that the jobs generated by the Apollo program would help mollify unemployment created by automation.

The Apollo years spanned the release of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), about an automated Soviet machine that triggers the end of the world, and his 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which an intelligent computer murders American astronauts. Also during Apollo, Jacques Ellul's book The Technological Society (published in 1965 in English) challenged the increasing dominance of ''technique'' in human culture. In 1967 Lewis Mumford named the ''megamachine'' as the aggregate of technology, social organization, and management that suppressed individual human values.

Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in 1968 (later made into the film Blade Runner), recasting traditional demarcations between humans and machines. Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) took ''the rocket'' as its central literary figure, exploring the technical, psychological, and religious dimensions of a state that worshiped at the altar of technology, and the paranoia engendered by its invisible, clockwork plans.21

NASA and its astronauts faced such tensions in the daily engineering of their systems, questions with the potential to undermine the symbolic agenda of the program. Would the exigencies of rockets, supersonic flight, and split-second decisions, not to mention onboard computers, threaten the classical heroic qualities? What tasks were susceptible to human skill, and what was too fast, complex, or uncertain for a human to intervene? How were Apollo designers to engineer a system that had a place for a heroic operator? As Apollo's machines were designed, built, and operated they called the very nature of ''heroism'' into question. What did it mean to be in control?

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