Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Matthew D. Tribbe's "No Requiem for the Space Age"

Matthew D. Tribbe is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of Connecticut.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture, and reported the following:
Damn you, Ford Madox Ford! You couldn’t have picked page 90 for your experiment so I could have discussed Erich Fromm’s thoughts on the necrophilic impulses of technological enthusiasts? Or anticipated McLuhan’s page 69, where anthropologist Loren Eiseley compares humans to slime molds? Surely such lurid topics are more Internet appropriate than revisiting one of the most problematic passages in No Requiem for the Space Age.

Page 99 is the end of the introduction to Chapter 4, which sums up the chapter’s major themes:
“We came in peace for all mankind,” asserted a plaque left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts. “Here men first set foot outside the earth on their way to the far stars,” left-wing journalist I. F. Stone suggested a more honest memorial would read. “They speak of peace but wherever they go they bring war. The rockets on which they arrived were developed to carry instant death and can within a few minutes turn their green planet into another lifeless moon. . . . Let the rest of the universe beware.”

What values would humanity take with it into space, and more important, what were the potential consequences for Earth of the mounting technological power the endeavor displayed? Did Apollo offer salvation from the troubled past, a fresh start around which humanity could unite and move forward into a more peaceful and promising future? Or was there, in fact, great danger in leaping headlong into space with the expectation that it would offer an escape from familiar human predicaments, given its roots in wartime technologies and mindsets and the dangers inherent in trying to master the universe via earth-shaking rockets and complex space capsules that seemed far more advanced than the morality and maturity of their passengers?

Like everyone else who witnessed the Apollo 11 liftoff, Newsweek General Editor Joseph Morgenstern was stunned by its raw power, and he struggled to wrap his mind around just such questions. He found himself both weeping and marveling at the thought that high technology of the type showcased by Apollo, like the rocket itself as it was propelled upward by its flame, was unstoppable. “What are we to make of power that can do such things to people?” he wondered. “What will we make of it?” This chapter examines how some of America’s sharpest minds confronted tangible, rather than philosophical, concerns over what the space program meant for the United States and the world—fears based not on speculation over a potential machine-dominated future, but on a very real, very disturbing recent past infused with memories of butchery and mass murder via techniques, technologies, and mindsets that critics contended were reaching a pinnacle in the Apollo program.
The problem with Chapter 4 was that, as originally written, its themes of power and destruction didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. It’s not that it contradicted the larger argument, that cultural changes in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s undermined faith in the technocratic rationalism of the Space Age and played a major role in derailing the Apollo moon program; it just seemed to sap some of the book’s momentum. In fact, the book would flow better without it. But I was willing to sacrifice a bit of cohesiveness to include it, since I think it is important, and overall it contributes to the argument. It took a lot of pondering and reworking to understand myself how this chapter fit with the larger whole, and it was this chapter in particular that compelled me to organize the book into three parts for clarity’s sake, contributing significantly to its ultimate structure.

So, does page 99 properly represent my book? Yes and no. Its theme still deviates a bit from the cultural focus of the rest of the book. It also, as perceptive (or impatient) readers may notice, more or less repeats the same sentiment in consecutive paragraphs. I liked each one, so I kept both, but this is something I generally avoided in the rest of the book. Nonetheless, to the degree that it uses the voices of a variety of Americans who strove to make sense of what Apollo meant to their lives and their world in order to offer a different take on the event than the usual celebratory fluff, this page very much represents what I set out to do with the book.

Mr. Ford, I apologize for my earlier outburst. Perhaps page 99 was an inspired choice after all. I therefore damn you and thank you at the same time, and I am perfectly content with this contradiction.
Learn more about No Requiem for the Space Age at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue