Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Apollo Program: A Question of Meaning

Apollo: the program

In his book, The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century, Peter Watson identifies the exploration of space, including the spectacular landing of humans on the moon, as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the 20th century.

The Soviet Union took an early and surprising lead in space adventures. It launched into orbit Sputnik 1 in 1957, followed by the first animal (the dog Laika) in 1957 and the first man (Yuri Gagarin) in 1961.

American leaders responded with shock and embarrassment. Watson reports that, after hearing of Gagarin’s achievement, President Kennedy “called a frenzied meeting at the White House” (1961), yelled at Vice-President Johnson about possible American responses, and demanded  that “‘something must be done’”(566).

Something was done. Initially, America imitated Soviet achievements. It got John Glenn to orbit the earth in 1962. But America soon surpassed the Soviet Union because of Kennedy’s commitment, sustained by his successors, to send a man to the moon by 1969.

Watson himself was impressed by the numbers of the Apollo program: 
Spending: $5 billion a year from 1961 to 1972 (567). 
Personnel: “the brains of 400,000 people from 150 universities and 20,000 firms” (567).
Saturn 5 rocket: 2,700 tons, “364 feet high, had 2 million working parts, 2.5 million solder joints …and carried 11,400,000 gallons of fuel.” “The exit hatch of the module needed 150 new tools to be invented. Some bolts had to be locked in place by two men using a five-foot wrench” (567).

On July 21, 1969, the late President Kennedy’s goal was reached: Neil Armstrong took the first step by a human on the moon.

Apollo: to what purpose?

In Genesis 1, we learn that Yahweh created the earth, just as it is, to serve as the perfect context for us humans to live in. One way it served as that perfect context was by imposing limits upon us. One limit we were created to respect was the vitality of other species and their habitats. To do that, we humans needed to develop ways of living within the energy income we receive from the sun rather than ways of living that require us to live off the energy savings of fossil fuels (let alone uranium).

With the rupture in our relationships with Yahweh, one another, and creation (Genesis 3), we abandoned all that. The consequences of this abandonment grew more serious around 1800 with the beginning of what would become today's Global Technological System (GTS). Now the GTS, not God’s good creation, is our context and it demands the systematic destruction of other species and their habitats. This global systematic destruction is possible only through our utter dependency on the energy savings of fossil fuels (let alone uranium).

The GTS is the hard-won product of our foolish devotion to six conventional but false and destructive gods. One of these is Vulcan, god of technology.

Through the Apollo program, the US put a man on the moon. As Watson says, this was a notable intellectual success. But the program and final moon landing were only possible because of the GTS, only served to strengthen it, and only have meaning in its context. They brought glory to the US, but only as the US unknowingly served Vulcan in such a prodigious manner.

Jesus would have us focus each day on creating and developing relationships of truth, freedom, love, and vitality with God, one another, and all the other creatures of God’s good creation. The Apollo program and its achievement didn’t help us do that. Rather than glorifying in it, or in the today’s latest technological marvel, Jesus invites us to find less spectacular but greater meaning in glorifying God, strengthening the Church, and drawing much closer to the land.

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