Issue 18 Fictional States Summer 2005
In Search of Ancient Astronauts: A Requiem for the Space Age
In the Southern California of my childhood, it was always rocket summer.
To those of us who lived through the downsizing of America’s rocket dreams, the only thing more extraordinary than those memories of human beings standing in the Sea of Tranquility or the Ocean of Storms is the suddenness with which we seemed to forget it. Had it all been a Moonage Daydream? To anyone born after Apollo, Cape Canaveral was a Petrified Forest for futurists, its buzz-cut mission controllers and Bible-quoting astronauts relics of a more earnest America.
NASA stumbled on, but the escalating war in Vietnam was a sucking chest wound in the federal budget, forcing drastic cutbacks in funding for the once all-powerful agency. Then, too, NASA’s painfully public SNAFUs, from the near-fatal explosion that brought Apollo 13 limping back to Earth in 1970 to Skylab’s premature wipeout in 1979, made the mass of Americans increasingly uneasy about the cost, in national nightmares (and taxpayer billions), of aiming for the stars. The unmanned Viking spacecraft’s discovery in 1975 that Mars was a dead rock, utterly inhospitable to human life, extinguished dreams of colonizing the red planet. Skylab’s unscheduled crash only reinforced what the historian Peter N. Carroll calls our “sense of earthboundedness.”13
As “the energy, the faith, the devotion” of the Kennedy years faded into the long national nightmare of the Nixon era, the transcendental impulses that once found expression in the space program sought new outlets. True believers continued to bear witness to the von Braunian gospel: Timothy Leary, the Neil Armstrong of the acid flashback, exhorted his flock to prepare for “space migration;” the physicist Gerard K. O’Neill built castles in the air—solar-powered orbital cities, some 20-million strong—in his 1977 book High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. But most seventies seekers embarked on inner-space odysseys, solo flights to self-actualization guided by the star charts of the Aquarian Age.
Even some of the astronauts saw the light. Rolling with the zeitgeist, they reconciled Space Age and New Age in harmonic convergences all their own. For Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, seeing the fragile lifeboat Earth adrift in space inspired a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus revelation: in a flash, Mitchell understood that the universe is suffused, at the subatomic level, with a cosmic intelligence that connects all things. In 1973, he founded a New Age thinktank, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, in Palo Alto, California, to fish in the waters where the crosscurrents of science and mysticism meet. Others took more conventional flightpaths: Russell Schweickart (Apollo 9) embraced Zen Buddism, Story Musgrave (Skylab) struggled to make sense of the “noble, magnificent” music he heard in space, and Jim Irwin (Apollo 15) became a born-again Christian, leaving NASA to launch the evangelical High Flight Foundation.14 Meanwhile, in Southern California, the techno-transcendentalism of the receding Space Age intersected with mainline Christianity’s age-old dreams of spiritual liftoff from the world, the flesh, and the devil. These trajectories converged in a church architecture that was equal parts earthship and mothership, aerodynamic yet close to the Earth. The church I attended as a boy, in Chula Vista, is a pyramid-shaped artifact of this period aesthetic. St. Mark’s Lutheran resembles a redwood treehouse idling on a concrete launchpad. Designed in 1966 by Robert Des Lauriers, St. Mark’s serves two masters: the Rousseau-ian back-to-naturism of the ecology movement, and a rocket-finned futurism cultural runoff from the aeronautics industry.
Des Lauriers made a name for himself as the architect of more than sixty strikingly modernist churches throughout Southern California, all but a few in San Diego county. His flirtations with the aesthetic reached their apogee in the Carlton Hills Lutheran Church in San Diego’s Santee suburb, a Jetsonian traffic-stopper whose “flying effects” (his words) exploit the hyperbolic paraboloid. For inspiration, he drew on the Mexican modernist Felix Candela (from whom he borrowed the paraboloid), Le Corbusier, Wright, and his own deeply felt Christian faith.
Of course, he recalls, “everybody was thinking of doing space things” in the late sixties and early seventies.15 For the First Assembly of God church in the San Diego suburb of Mission Hills, Des Lauriers crossed the Spanish contemporary aesthetic with an “aeronautical design,” based on “the trajectories of rockets.” The church’s parabolic arch evoked Noah’s rainbow in visual rhetoric an aerospace culture could understand. As Des Laurier proclaimed, in a statement of aesthetic principles he wrote, “Man is looking for a soaring attitude. We [architects] can partially achieve this with our new forms. The aerospace industry can take credit for some of this thinking.” At the same time, he stressed, his was an “innovative architecture with traditional roots—Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance.”
Which brings us full circle, historically: With its gantry-like flying buttresses and dizzy verticality, the Gothic cathedral itself suggests a medieval premonition of the Space Age: a sacred ark, eager to be airborne. Inversely, the launch towers at Cape Canaveral were, for the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, “the cathedrals of an age that...has substituted technology for liturgy.”16 And, like the Gothic cathedrals, our Cold War race to plant the flag on the Moon before the Russkies did was at heart symbolic—“an act of faith and vision,” conceded Kennedy, “for we do not now know what benefits await us.”17
Driving through San Diego’s inland suburbs one furnace-hot August recently, on a pilgrimage to Des Lauriers’s churches, I wondered what benefits we had reaped from our lunar crusade. Inevitably, footage of Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard golfing in the Moon’s Fra Mauro highlands, or Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt singing “I was strolling on the Moon one day” in the Taurus-Littrow valley, makes boomers like me wonder: What did it all mean?
The lunar missions pushed the envelope of knowledge, though they would have pushed it far further if Schmitt hadn’t been the only scientist NASA sent up. For politicians, of course, the benefits of the space program were clear: JFK’s stirring declaration, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” covered the dashing young president in moondust and glory—and facilitated his political resurrection, after the embarrassment of Sputnik and the Bay of Pigs.18
For the rest of us, the moonshots were sacred events, robed in religious rhetoric: In the seconds before Apollo 11 lifted off, an expectant Norman Mailer realized that he “was like a penitent who had prayed in the wilderness for sixteen days, and was now expecting a sign.”19 Then, his prayers were answered: “[W]hite as the shrine of Madonna in half the churches of the world, this slim angelic mysterious ship of stages rose without sound out of its incarnation of flame and began to ascend slowly into the sky...”20
These days, the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is a shrine to fading glories. In Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond, the cultural critic Marina Benjamin describes the Atlas, Titan, Gemini, and Redstone missiles at the KSC Visitor Complex’s “Rocket Garden” as “so lackluster, so tired, they speak only of yesterday. And yesterday is where the Space Center and its surrounding attractions are for the most part stuck, caught up in a loop of reminiscence for Apollo.”21 Despite the overly insistent title of the Center’s IMAX movie The Dream is Alive, NASA is the Vatican of the Space Age, reverently preserving the sanctified fragments of futures past. (Not for nothing does the KSC website proudly announce that “NASA’s Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility is home to the most cherished...relics of the Apollo program.”22)
True, NASA continues to launch satellites and unmanned missions, while the International Space Station and Space Shuttle programs limp along. In 2004, George W. Bush had a Buzz Lightyear moment: Delivering an uplifting homily that sounded, at times, like a reading from the Book of von Braun, the president dreamed aloud of a $15 billion “Crew Exploration Vehicle,” a lunar base, and sometime after 2020, a manned mission to Mars. To infinity—and beyond!
But building popular support for the megabillion-dollar program will be an even tougher sell, in a country bled white by Operation Iraqi Freedom, than it was during the Vietnam war. After the horror of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, not to mention more laughable pratfalls, such as the 1999 screw-up that sent the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter kamikaze-ing into the red planet (NASA had failed to convert English measures to metric values), much of the nation seems convinced that boldly going where no man has gone before just isn’t worth it.
Their redwood beams dried and cracking after decades of rocket summers, Des Lauriers’s sixties and seventies churches reminded me of J.G. Ballard’s elegies for yesterday’s tomorrows. The stories in Memories of the Space Age are set in a melancholy future where dead astronauts circle the Earth, entombed in their lost capsules, and Cape Canaveral lies abandoned, “its gantries rising from the deserted dunes.”23
Sand has come in across the Banana River, filling the creeks and turning the old space complex into a wilderness of swamps and broken concrete. [...] Beyond Cocoa Beach, where I stopped the car, the ruined motels were half hidden in the saw grass. The launching towers rose into the evening air like the rusting ciphers of some forgotten algebra of the sky.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we inhabit Ballard’s metaphor. The Space Age is ancient history. Why not admit, then, that its greatest contribution to American culture is the rich fund of symbolism it has given us? The twentieth century’s greatest myth, space exploration is the only truly new religion since the Bronze Age. Christianity gave us the unforgettable fable of the alien messiah who touched down on planet Earth, assumed human form, sacrificed himself in order to save the species, then rose from the dead and returned to the stars.
The Space Age offers a new cosmology, better suited to our age of technological wonder and terror, scientific miracles and monsters. NASA has given us martyrs, saints, and icons, proof positive that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in our old-time religion: Gemini 4’s spacewalking Edward White, savoring the sheer ecstasy of unfettered freedom as he tumbles weightlessly over the Gulf of Mexico at 17,500 miles per hour. Bootprints in lunar soil, like traces of the last human on some post-apocalyptic beach—prints that will likely remain sharply etched for a million years or more. A snapshot of Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke’s family in their Houston backyard, left by Duke on the sands of the Moon’s Descartes Highlands—an image of almost unbearable loneliness. And, at the other end of the emotional scale, the awful grandeur of a thirty-six-story Saturn V rocket, shattering gravity’s shackles in a mighty blast. “I didn’t think my heart could take it,” said one observer. “It was such an intense experience. I felt it in every bone in my body. It was an exalted feeling.”24 The image of technological transcendence par excellence, a Saturn V blasting off was the twentieth-century version of Burke’s sublime, with 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
Space exploration has taught us new parables, too, most hauntingly Charlie Duke’s dream, six months before he went to the Moon:
In my dream, we were driving the [lunar] rover up to the [North Ray crater]...It was untouched, the serenity of it, had a pristine purity about it. We crossed a hill. I felt, “Gosh, I’ve been here before!” And, uh, there was a set of tracks out in front of us, so we asked Houston if we could follow the tracks and they said yes, so we turned and followed the tracks. Within an hour or so, we found this vehicle, it looked just like the rover, with two people in it, and they looked like me and John [Young]. They’d been there for thousands of years. It was not a nightmare-type situation, nothing like that. It was probably one of the most real experiences in my life.25
Duke’s dream felt so premonitory that he found himself scanning the North Ray crater for tire tracks as he descended onto the Moon in the lunar module Orion. Perhaps it was a prophetic glimpse of the end of the Space Age—a moment symbolized by a pair of ancient astronauts, on the highlands of the Moon, waiting for a future that will never come.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. The author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove press, 1997) and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (Grove press, 1999), he is at work on “Don Henley Must Die,” a series of essays on the cultural psyche of Southern California, specifically the badlands and borderlands of San Diego, where he grew up. He teaches at New York University in the Department of Journalism.
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