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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

from the moon to earth

Last night Kimmie and I watched episode 4 of the 1998 docu-drama series From the Earth to the Moon--about the flight of Apollo 8 in 1968. The series, a high-budget HBO offering produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer--the forces behind the 1995 movie Apollo 13--is well made and does capture some of the flavor of the 1960s as I remember it. It was a time of war, rioting, social unrest, assassinations--society in convulsions. I watched it on black-and-white TV at the time: state funerals, soldiers clubbing protesting students, endless machine-gunning and explosions in remote tropical forests--a backdrop of violence and killing against which politicians made stirring, idealistic speeches.

The series shows clips of all that, plus scenes of intense, nerdish men in rooms fogged with cigarette smoke talking earnestly about how to put astronauts on the moon before the Soviets beat them to it. At age nine, it was obvious and natural to me why "we" should be going all-out to fly to the moon: it was neat! What did it matter to me how many billions it cost? I made 25 cents a week in allowance; I had no notion of money. I loved space and its technology maybe even more than other nine-year-old boys.

I see things differently now. I'm still fascinated by space and space science, and I'm sure I'll always be interested in spacecraft. But instead of John F. Kennedy's famous speech of 25 May 1961, in which he committed the United States to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, I think of another speech, given four months earlier, by his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower, which contained these words:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence--economic, political, even spiritual--is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

The makers of the spacecraft that got America to the moon were all leading military contractors: General Dynamics, Rockwell, Boeing. The total cost of the Apollo program was about $20-25 billion, or the equivalent of around $120 billion today. It was ostensibly a peacetime initiative, but we can't ignore that it was done in direct, stated competition with the USSR--the West's Cold War enemy--and that the technologies developed were no doubt helpful for future military applications. Plus the money-stream helped those military contractors keep meeting their very large payrolls.

I remember that Christmas of 1968, hearing the radio broadcast of the astronauts Borman, Anders, and Lovell, in orbit around the moon, reading the opening verses of Genesis. Harvey Burt, our host for that Christmas dinner, said that Mara and I would be able to think back to that day and remember where we were.

Looking back on the Apollo program and on the show last night, I think the most important and memorable thing was the awe of the astronauts when they watched the Earth rise from over the horizon of the moon. As far as I know, all astronauts have felt this awe: the feeling of preciousness of Earth, our island home in the vast, dark, frigid sea of space. What are we doing to the only home we've got?

I felt anxiety and sadness as I watched the show. Looking at the world around me, from the news on TV to the street outside my house, I find it hard to be optimistic. We take our planet for granted, and I think there will be a terrible, terrible price to pay.

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