Saturday, October 20, 2018

First Man and our capacity for experience

I went to see First Man yesterday. I don’t quite know what I think about it. Did I like it? I suppose so, though it was maybe a little slow. Should you go see it? I suppose, it depends, what do you think about space flight, humans on the moon?

I grew up watching Walt Disney extol the wonders of man-in-space on his TV show. I designed rocket after rocket, assemble plastic model kits, too. I wanted to be an astronaut, at least until I was in my early teens. By the time we actually landed on the moon, 1969, I was marching against the war in Vietnam and didn’t even watch it on TV. But thirty years later I visited Kennedy Space Center and felt like I was on sacred ground. This is where men stood and reached up to the moon, this is where we reached beyond ourselves and beyond earth to...the infinite?

That’s what director Damien Chazelle has attempted to deal with, as had Stanley Kubrick before, others too. But not all man-in-space films reach for that sacred dimension, even illumination.

To have traveled to the moon, even as “spam in a can”, that is an enormous adventure. To look at earth from space, from the moon, I can’t comprehend it. And yet Neil Armstrong, at the center of this film, is just a man, an earthbound human like you and me. Did this sacred journey stretch his capacity for experience to the breaking point? Chazelle reaches for that ‘dimension’ by thematically linking the way-too-early death of Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, with his first steps on the moon. He leaves her infant identity bracelet behind on the moon. Thus does Chazelle both close and open the gap between earthbound experience and being on the moon.

Didn't see that coming, did you, the bracelet thing? Yeah, we knew they made it to the moon and back. But we didn't know that. That was a, "surprise" isn't quite the word.

And here lies the paradox. If that experience is a human one, a function of human capacity and yearning, then it cannot be dependent on the moon, on the journey there (and back). It must be, it is, available to us here, on earth.

The moon, then, the journey to and from, the dangers and excitement of that journey, that is all both central to and incidental to the core experience. The experience is in us, not out there. It is about our capacity, not the moon’s.


If a dull man or woman were to journey to the moon, how would it differ from a long scary trip to Mickey D’s for a burger and fries?


  1. I haven't seen the film yet, so I appreciate your critical caution.

    You remind me of my dear friend Charles Cameron's opposition to humans on the moon. He saw the moon as too valuable as a psychological symbol to be desacralized.

    I wonder, though, how American culture will change its perception of space. We are so, so removed from the Mercury->Apollo time. The US-USSR space race is now purely the stuff of myth.
    The space shuttle, which Maciej Ceglowski famously dunned as a rocket to nowhere, demystified the adventure. Now it's a commercial process, or conducted by other nations.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bryan. I was wondering what Charles could have to say about this. I understand his point, yet...

      It seems to me that in some way crossing the Atlantic to the New World must have seemed and been as dangerous/sacred to Columbus et. al. as journeying to the moon (or Mars) seems to us. Of course, in time, travel to the New World became routinized and colonies were established, etc.

      I'm not at all sure we've got the capacity to routinize moon flights in the same way, much less to set up permanent residence.

      BTW, when I was working for NASA in the summer of 1981, the adventurers in the agency, who, after all, are the ones who put us on the moon, were weary of the space shuttle – Space Transportation, Inc. – and were leaving NASA, if not in droves, at least at a pace distressing enough the high level managers were not happy. And yet, I doubt that our total cumulative hours of traveling to and from space are equal to those a commercial aircraft has logged in test flights before final certification.

    2. Yes, there's a cultural pattern here, an arc from dread/possibility to suburbs. I just hope we don't give up on it.