The website of Dan Erdman
Tucked away among its many other fascinating artifacts, the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, NM – to which I give my unalloyed endorsement, by the way – has a map on display giddily pointing out all of the assorted infrastructure – observatories, proving grounds, manufactures – that sprung up in the area once Defense Department and NASA money started pouring in to the area post-Sputnik. Very little of that remains in the world outside; all that’s visible in Alamogordo and its environs is the ruins of the infrastructure that supported that infrastructure. Lots of engineers moved to the area, but so did many more janitors and security guards and secretaries and groundskeepers and cafeteria workers. And in their wake came furnace repairmen and bartenders and bus drivers and high school teachers and guys who sprayed disinfectant into the shoes you rent at the bowling alley and etc. What evidence remains of these people in the town and the area around it, and in the greater region as well, is mostly in the form of now-shuttered buildings and abandoned houses. Roads are unpatched; we drove back to our hotel in a heavy rainstorm, and the ungraded streets collected water in deep pools, resulting in my own aviation adventures when I hydroplaned over them at Chuck Yeager speeds.
I am very susceptible to the mythology of space exploration in its golden age, possibly because I have first-hand memory only of its later, calmer period. I got up early on the morning of April 12, 1981 to watch the launch of the Columbia, but even then I hazily understood that the space shuttle missions were much more staid affairs compared to the adventures from the Right Stuff era. The first spent a week or two coasting around the earth’s orbit doing science experiments, while the others had fled to the furthest boundaries of the cosmos that humans could then reach. When I learned the story of Grissom, White, and Chaffee perishing on a mock launch pad during a (real) fire the blood chilled in my 7 year old veins; but the sun hadn’t even begun to set on the very afternoon – which happens pretty early in January in northern Wisconsin – before my cohort and I began workshopping rude jokes about the Challenger disaster on the playground, indulging a proclivity for crass humor that’s as essential to the proper development of a pre-adolescent boy as fixating on space exploration is to that of his younger self. I was there, and I absolutely promise you that “What’s NASA stand for? Needs Another Seven Astronauts!” – the likes of which proto-zoo crew morning radio DJs were repeating on the air in my hinterlands home town, to no measurable public backlash – captured the rhetorical temperature of that week much more than did Ronnie’s “touched the face of God” bushwa. The bloom was well off the rose of my space obsession at that point, but it wasn’t only because I had personally aged out of it; no normal person cared.
The last movie I saw in 2021 was Apollo 11: First Steps Edition (2019), at the New Horizons Dome Theater and Planetarium at said Museum. This is just what it says on the tin, a documentary of the 1969 trip to the moon and back, originally released on the half-century anniversary of that event, consisting entirely of archival footage of various formats and provenances cut into roughly chronological sequence and projected digitally onto the domed ceiling of the planetarium. The posters claimed it was at IMAX scale, and though I’m not sure of the exact specs of the projection, it did nicely overwhelm my field of vision; I noticed my companion at the screening having to crane her neck at various points to follow different points of interest in the frame.
The Apollo footage will fascinate me forever, even though it’s been seen everywhere by everyone a million billion times. Ice cascading off the rocket as it rumbles to life. The booster components dropping off the capsule to disintegrate in the atmosphere. The cramped aperture framing from inside the capsule – the camera positioned to take in as much as it can but still hemmed in and its view blocked by virtue of being stuck in such a tight spot (if Kubrick did indeed concoct the whole thing on the Pinewood lots, then it’s quite a stylistic departure for him, as he’d never designed a frame that blocked off crucial visual information so crudely). Video of the moon surface filling the frame as the capsule coasts in for landing, the superimposed readouts indicating that the astronauts still somehow had a couple hundred feet to go before touchdown. I was glad to see that all three astronauts were given cinematography credit for this; too late for Armstrong and Collins (the latter of whom died last year, unnoticed by me, the poor guy practically a bridesmaid at his own funeral!), but maybe Aldrin can use this credit to get his foot in the door with the union. He ought to shoot another feature, he’s pretty good!
This kind of brutally gargantuan presentation is a bit of a gimmick, but I can’t say it isn’t thematically appropriate. Some of the earthbound scenes were captured on 65mm film, most impressively the transport of the Saturn V rocket from its hanger to the launch pad via a set of colossal caterpillar treads; various minders walk alongside (deliberately slowing their stride) the same way that the ants on the sidewalk accompany you on your afternoon walk. But even the more visually prosaic shots earn their dimensions, simply by their association with the adventure at hand. Some of the grandeur rubs off on both the gawkers at the launch, filling bleachers several safe miles away, and the flat-topped engineers in shirtsleeves on the ones and twos at mission control (CNN was somehow able to construct a coherent picture of this space without using a single frame from of what must been millions of feet of these guys smoking cigarettes). The literally world-historical nature of the event magnified every gesture connected to it, however far removed
Everything was nicely cut together, with only minimal contemporary intervention – here some brief textual scene-setting marking off segments of the journey, there some tasteful animation explaining the more logistically abstruse aspects of the mission. Only the insertion of a souped-up version of Johnny Cash’s “Mother Country” over the scene of the astronauts’ safe return felt like a little much, though I think I noticed in the accompanying montage the inclusion of a quick shot of Nixon and Kissinger applauding from the flag bridge of the USS Hornet as the fished-out capsule is hauled on deck. It’s probably overgenerous of me to read that as an ironic wink from an overworked editorial assistant, but I choose to believe it all the same.
I try to keep up on pop science books now, though I admit that much of their appeal for me comes from observing how legible prose can be wrung out of impossible concepts (pour some out for E.O. Wilson, haters BTFO). I think I’ve even learned a few things about science along the way, and I’m always glad to find that such stuff can still pique my interest, if not quite my fascination. I find its ultimate impenetrability to be a comfort, since it means that it will remain something forever outside of myself, I’m too stupid to ever get bored with it. Now, of course, a strong opinion on scientific topics is usually a way to signal to the world what kind of guy you are, which in practice amounts to signaling about what kind of guy you don’t like. The I Fucking Love Science schtick breeds the (equal-but-opposite) reaction of astrology simpletons, party animals still trying to make flat-earth stuff happen, needle-phobes dressing up their neuroses as bold skepticism of a bloodless technocracy. Which precipitates its own reaction – hand-wringing over the demise of objectivity or intellectual standards or universally agreed-upon facts. All of it’s pretty tiresome, and requires much more pointless effort than giving in to the pleasures of thinking, and seeing.