A piece of the last true man
by Dwayne A. Day
|Neil Armstrong achieved one of the greatest goals in human spaceflight but then did not go on to proselytize the faith. Worse, he no longer signs autographs. For True Believers in The Cause, this is apostasy, and they resent him for it.|
An excellent—albeit odd—example of this view can be found in a recent review of James R. Hansen’s new biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man(Simon & Schuster; $30). The review, by Thomas Mallon, appears in The New Yorker. The New Yorker is a stuffy (and in my opinion, way overrated) magazine for northeast Establishment liberals. But it has always been a little odd. If one can judge a magazine’s readers from the kinds of articles that it runs, then readers of The New Yorker reflect a weird contradiction of wealth and powerlessness. The magazine appears to be written for people who are overwhelmingly white, rich, liberal elites who feel a certain amount of guilt about their wealth and status, but nevertheless feel relatively powerless to actually change society. They have resigned themselves to donating to a few respectable charities and the Democratic Party, attending wine and cheese parties in Manhattan, but not really improving the world. Mallon’s book review reflects that world view rather well, if extremely annoyingly.
We have all met someone like Mallon at one time or another: the manic depressive who only achieves pleasure by dragging everyone around him into the despair that he himself feels. The standard liberal critique of spaceflight is that we should spend the money on the poor, either education for little children or health care for the elderly or some other social program. Mallon does not really take that view. Instead, he just views the entire effort as pointless and hopeless, part of the heavy burden of being alive.
Mallon has apparently decided to use his book review to air his disappointment with the world he inhabits, and spaceflight—and Neil Armstrong—are merely vehicles to carry his inner angst. But he also expresses opinions that are common to a certain segment of the space enthusiast crowd, although without the enthusiasm.
Consider this line from Mallon’s review: “For all its technical brilliance, the unmanned American space program—its Voyagers, Galileo, and Hubble—has been a photo safari, merely a virtual triumph. Mars remains a red gleam in the eye of a species that can’t quite bring itself to go there. The space shuttle, between catastrophes, travels its circles to nowhere.”
Pretty grating, huh?
Obviously Mallon means to imply that robots are no substitute for actual human spaceflight to the planets, a view that many space enthusiasts share. Many people are fans of human spaceflight and still enormously disappointed with the space shuttle program. But “between catastrophes”? It was seventeen years and dozens of spaceflights between Challenger and Columbia. Don’t the achievements—or at least the years—count for anything at all? Or should we measure all of human existence by the low points?
|But for Mallon, it’s all a letdown—one suspects because it is not enough. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon in 1969 and human spaceflight has been disappointment ever since.|
Mallon’s comparison between robotic and human spaceflight is inherently contradictory, however. Although he seems to imply that it would be better for humans to explore than robot proxies, he is so dismissive of the robots themselves that it is hard to believe that he finds any aspect of space exploration exciting, or worthwhile. Notice how casually Mallon dismisses the achievements of Voyager, Galileo, and Hubble: “technically brilliant,” but only a “virtual triumph,” as if they didn’t actually discover anything. Voyager revealed volcanoes on Io and the rings of Saturn. It imaged ice geysers on the frozen plains of a moon orbiting a haunting blue gas giant far from our sun. It has discovered the shockwave at the edge of our solar system. Galileo has provided evidence that several of the giant moons of Jupiter may contain subterranean oceans that might possibly harbor life. Hubble has revealed the age of our universe, and paradoxically has shown us how little we understand it. It has led to the discovery of dark matter and dark energy, both of which may potentially revolutionize our understanding of physics.
But for Mallon, it’s all a letdown—one suspects because it is not enough. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon in 1969 and human spaceflight has been disappointment ever since. This is actually a view held by many space activists and enthusiasts. They love the idea of human spaceflight and even space settlement, but have been disappointed by NASA’s implementation of it for the past several decades. Some of them cannot help but entertain the nonsensical belief that if only Neil Armstrong had been a better hero—a more vociferous advocate for The Cause—that Things Would Have Been Different.
Most space advocates, not surprisingly, think that spaceflight is worthwhile. Mallon is different because there is nothing in his review that indicates that he shares this belief. One suspects that deep down below all that gloom he actually does value it, but he finds it more satisfying to wallow in the mud, reveling in the pointlessness and hopelessness of human existence. (He even mentions that Armstrong’s mother lost her faith late in life, that it was all just a panacea to shield her from the pain of existence. This sounds like a manic depressive off his meds.)
Mallon continues: “It would be churlish to blame Armstrong—this brave, talented man who briefly took us out of here—for the long failure that followed.”
Presumably this “failure” is that the United States never followed up with more ambitious human space missions. Take away the heavy-handed gloom and one can find similar opinions expressed by many space advocates. The big difference is that Mallon denigrates the Moon missions themselves, never bothering to discuss the scientific results and dismissing them as merely a collection of boring rocks that have been placed in archival storage.
Because the subject of the book he is reviewing is Neil Armstrong and not the space program in general, Mallon has to discuss the man, and it is here that he takes his criticism beyond Hanson’s book to Armstrong himself. It is here that the typical liberal New Yorker disdain for patriotism and traditional American values rears its ugly head.
Mallon expresses no admiration for Armstrong other than a few adjectives (“brave, talented”), and even denigrates his achievements. One of his biggest gripes about Armstrong is that he is boring. Stoicism, which used to be considered noble, strong, and admirable, clashes with the modern demands we place on our heroes.
Mallon’s critique of Armstrong is frequently petty: “but he stopped signing autographs and continues a mild tendency toward litigiousness, suing Hallmark for the unauthorized use of his likeness on a Christmas ornament, and threatening action against a barber for selling his hair.” This statement may also reveal Mallon’s inner space geek—the obsession with owning a piece of an idol is a common trait among space enthusiasts, whether it is an autograph or part of his soul.
In fact, what is perhaps most bizarre about Mallon’s review is that his biggest problem with Armstrong is apparently that the moonwalker didn’t sell out: he didn’t bow down to the confessional culture of Oprah and Dr. Phil that requires that you air all your feelings and failings in public and seek redemption through the power of the tearful television interview. Armstrong does not obey the rules of contemporary American society that decree there is no such thing as privacy, shame, or too much publicity, and that you are a nobody unless you have your own reality show, or your photo on the cover of People magazine. For this Armstrong has been declared a “recluse,” despite the fact that he spent years teaching undergraduates engineering at a school in his native Ohio. Armstrong has never really hidden from the public eye: he simply has not sought it out, which should not qualify one as a recluse.
|What is perhaps most bizarre about Mallon’s review is that his biggest problem with Armstrong is apparently that the moonwalker didn’t sell out: he didn’t bow down to the confessional culture of Oprah and Dr. Phil that requires that you air all your feelings and failings in public and seek redemption through the power of the tearful television interview.|
Space enthusiasts want to own their heroes, and it is not uncommon to hear them complain bitterly that their tax dollars paid to make Armstrong famous, so he should sit at a table in the National Air and Space Museum for the next forty years signing autographs and posing for photos, and most importantly, advocate spending more money on space exploration. Usually this is expressed with bitterness if not outright hostility. Mallon’s pompous depression is a new take on it—about what one would expect from The New Yorker—but it is essentially the same argument: Armstrong is not who I want him to be.
But he is who he is. And all things considered, Neil Armstrong is a man who achieved great things in his life and has the good manners not to flaunt it. The space program already has one publicity-hogging moonwalker, ready to fling himself in front of any TV camera that comes along (and willing to sell his undershirts on eBay). We don’t need another one. Neil Armstrong typifies the kind of silent stoicism, patriotism, and dedication to hard work that disappeared from our culture decades ago, or at least stopped being valued by the celebrity culture. His dignity and unwillingness to bow to the demands of the fickle public is something that we could use more of, not less. He represents a rare commodity, the kind of man who doesn’t talk about doing something—he just goes out and does it. Those are the kinds of values we should praise, not deride.
But Armstrong wouldn’t want the praise anyway.