The first lunar landing was many things — a D-Day-like feat of planning and logistics, a testament to the power of man's will, an ostensible propaganda coup for NATO. It was also, I think, one of the most misunderstood events in the history of the world.
In practical terms Apollo 11 was meaningless. To say that it represents the beginning of what will one day be the expansion of humanity's horizons into outer space seems to me not only unlikely but inhuman. "Human being," Heidegger said, "consists in dwelling and, indeed, dwelling in the sense of the stay of mortals on the Earth. But 'on the Earth' already means 'under the sky.'" This Earth is where the drama of human life will be played out.
Still less do I think that the our lunar adventure belongs to the achievements of modern science. Certainly it was a voyage undertaken for no meaningful scientific purpose. (This was more widely acknowledged in the years leading up to the mission than it is today.) Practically nothing of value was obtained from putting a man on the moon that could not have been just as easily acquired by a robot.
The significance of Apollo also has nothing to do with the speculative images of "space" with fake color embellishments that we put today in front of children who do not know the names of trees and flowers. Nothing could be less awful, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, than today's space program.
I would like to suggest that the moon landing was above all a triumph of our aesthetic instincts. What Goethe began at Weimar in 1789 ended on August 15, 1969. Apollo 11 was the culmination of the Romantic cult of the sublime prefigured in the speculations of Burke and Kant, an artistic juxtaposition of man against a brutal environment upon which he could project his fears, his sympathies, his feelings of transcendence.
The greatest historical analogue to the manned lunar mission is probably the early years of English polar exploration — those heady days when, as Francis Spufford argues, hard men put their will in the service of a literary mania for feelings of remoteness, hugeness, and brooding oceanic emptiness. What a shame that we have been able to produce no great lunar literature to succeed the writings by Byron, the Shelleys, Tennyson, and Melville that both immortalized and inspired the great hypothermic pioneers. (I'm still holding out hope for science fiction.) Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were were like Coleridge's ancient mariner, "alone, alone, all, all alone" on a sea of stars. It is only by an accident of chronology — like the 12 years that prevented us from hearing Lincoln's voice — that their achievement did not become the subject of a tone poem by Strauss.
Which brings us back to the moon. The primarily aesthetic nature of the first Apollo mission becomes clearer when one considers it from the perspective of both the participants and the spectators. The lunar landing was not a scientific announcement or a political press conference; it was a performance, a literal space opera, a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that brought together the efforts of more than 400,000 people, performed before an audience of some 650 million. It was a victory, as Armstrong immediately recognized, not of Western democratic capitalism over Soviet tyranny, or of America over the rest of the world, but for humanity. It belongs to the United States no more than Michelangelo does to Italy or Machu Picchu to Peru. "Gladly, like His suns fly / Through the heavens' grand plan / Go on, brothers, your way, / Joyful, like a hero to victory," Schiller begged over Beethoven's trumpets. The entire world saw three men obey.
Virtually alone among contemporary observers in seeing the true significance of the lunar landing was Vladimir Nabokov, who rented a television set for the occasion. Asked by The New York Times for his reaction, the author of Pale Fire wrote of:
…[T]hat gentle little minuet that despite their awkward suits the two men danced with such grace to the tune of lunar gravity was a lovely sight. It was also a moment when a flag means to one more than a flag usually does. I am puzzled and pained by the fact that the English weeklies ignored the absolutely overwhelming excitement of the adventure, the strange sensual exhilaration of palpating those precious pebbles, of seeing our marbled globe in the black sky, of feeling along one's spine the shiver and wonder of it. After all, Englishmen should understand that thrill, they who have been the greatest, the purest explorers. Why then drag in such irrelevant matters as wasted dollars and power politics?
I will think with sublime happiness of these words on Saturday as I watch for what must be the hundredth time what is perhaps the most unlikely piece of art ever created for the ennoblement of our species.