No Requiem For The Space Age by Matthew Tribbe looks at the culture of American society and how it reacted to the achievements of the Apollo program. Tribbe’s book, drawn from his Ph.D. dissertation “The Rocket and the Tarot: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture at the Dawn of the Seventies,” is both interesting and infuriating – interesting in that it collates much of the contemporary Luddite, anti-space rhetoric all in one place and infuriating for the same reason. The author’s thesis is that “informed opinion” at the time of Apollo held that it was significant, but no one knew why. Tribbe accepts as gospel many of the same tropes that analysts assumed then (and presumably still do) but more significantly, he attributes more credibility to the critics of Apollo than they merit, then or now.
The book is organized by chapter, with each viewing the Apollo lunar landings through the prism of various sub-groups: East Coast intelligentsia, media (print, audio and visual), the bohemian “alternative lifestyle” groups (obsessed over by many in the media), and finally, the general working and voting public. Tribbe makes the common assumption that Apollo ended because “people lost interest in going to the Moon,” even though he quotes public opinion surveys collated by Roger Launius that in fact, the American people were never very interested in lunar exploration to begin with. Tribbe claims to understand that Apollo was not a great leap into the cosmos but rather, a geopolitical contest with implications that were very much Earth-bound, yet seems perplexed that despite the success of Apollo, it was dead-end for space exploration. If he understood the former point, he would realize that Apollo was never about space exploration.
The most disturbing feature of this book is the importance afforded to the many voices of discord and complaint about the Apollo program. I am annoyed not by his coverage of them (they are after all, part of the historical record) but by the elevated significance Tribbe assigns to them and their place in society. Most large collective undertakings have their critics, but for historical significance, what matters is their net effect on the undertaking in question – was it successful or not? In the case of Apollo, what clearly was successful was that we accomplished our national goal on schedule and beat the Soviets to the Moon. What Tribbe does not explore (or does not understand) is the very tangible benefit America achieved by winning the Moon race.
Some view the Apollo Moon landings solely as a “stunt” – a demonstration of American technological prowess. In this view, the lunar landings achieved little except for global public relations. While this aspect of the program is true, it certainly is not the entire story. The real value of Apollo was that it demonstrated to the Soviets both our technical abilities and our national resolve. A human lunar mission is an enormously difficult technical undertaking, something that the Soviets themselves had seriously attempted and failed to accomplish. That failure, underscored by America’s success, led the Soviets (and other aggressive regimes) to conclude that Americans could achieve any technological goal that they set as their goal. A decade later, to defend America and our allies against nuclear annihilation, President Ronald Reagan announced an effort to develop a shield in space. Many of the same American intelligentsia who thought Apollo to be “silly” loudly proclaimed the idea of a ballistic missile defense system as ludicrous and unworkable, calling it “Star Wars” and labeling Reagan an out-of-control “foreign policy cowboy.” However, the Soviets took “Star Wars” development very seriously. In fact, an opportunity for a major breakthrough in nuclear arms control was missed at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 solely because Reagan would not trade away SDI for a proposed elimination of Soviet nuclear missiles. With prospects of Reagan’s “Star Wars” neutralizing their nuclear arsenal, the Soviets commenced on a self-imposed race to develop their own missile defense system, which in turn sped up their nation’s eventual fall into financial collapse.
Why would the Soviets have insisted on such a provision at Reykjavik if SDI were merely some cowboy fantasy? Tribbe completely misses this concrete, substantive benefit of Apollo – American technical credibility and the power it wielded. In his mind, although the Apollo “stunt” was successful, it had no lasting effect on the state of the Cold War and even less effect on long-term spaceflight (to which it was only incidentally relevant). In fairness, this is a common perception in the current academic community; I simply find it a pity that someone who has studied this period so intently could miss a development of such an obvious significance.
Which brings me to my last point about No Requiem –Tribbe’s over-reading of the lasting significance of the counter-culture and its criticism of both Apollo and American society. It is certainly true that many über-sophisticates and literati were disdainful or openly contemptuous of the Apollo program, and of the people who made it all work. Thomas Paine, Administrator of NASA at the time of Apollo, famously described its success as the “triumph of the squares.” This clearly got the goat of the chattering classes, who to this day continue to spin tales of massive quantities of money “wasted” on things like human space missions.
In part, Apollo and the space program in general was a victim of its own success. The famous and beautiful “Earthrise” picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew became an icon for the burgeoning environmental movement, which as Tribbe demonstrates, quickly took an anti-technology, Luddite turn from which it has never fully recovered or disavowed. Lest you think that such a development is irrelevant to current issues with our civil space program, I note that Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren (who reportedly has had a significant role in the gutting of civil space under the current administration) is a disciple of Malthusian overpopulation alarmist and eco-loon Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. Thus, one of the extremist “green” movement’s own is helping to set the current U.S. civil space agenda.
While Tribbe commits the common blunder of assigning nearly all of the Sixties generation to the bin of the counter-culture, nearly all of my high school classmates in flyover country (Kansas City, MO) were normal, middle-class teens, more interested in cars and girls than Vietnam protests. Moreover, virtually all of my friends and personal acquaintances went on to finish their college degrees, got ordinary jobs in the trades and professions, and married and raised families. The idea that there existed a rebellious generation that rejected the norms and values of American society is a myth perpetrated by a small group that engaged in these things (then and now). Although a minority, they have disproportionate representation in the media and academia, and thus play an outsized role in educating others. Those of us privileged to be alive at the time of humanity’s first steps onto another world remember it clearly and distinctly, recalling both the excitement and elation of those distant times with fondness.
The public did not “lose interest” in Apollo – it never had more than a passing interest in Apollo to begin with. Naturally, the first lunar landing drew unprecedented attention, as befitting any such event. But most people got neither too excited nor too offended about subsequent trips to the Moon. As with most historically noteworthy things, their importance at the time was not well understood, but that should not detract from their significance. In this country, things happen not because an outraged or excited public demands it, but because a few key people see an unmet need and take it upon themselves to address it. America has a nuclear navy today not because there was a grass-roots public movement to create one, but because a few visionaries, such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, saw the need for such a development and doggedly took the necessary steps to implement it.
Tribbe’s book is a concise and comprehensive compendium of negative, critical contemporary opinion about the Apollo program and a good reference to the historian for this purpose. But it is a distorted view of both the legacy of the space program and of America in the 1960s. It is illustrative of what the academy thinks of this country and would have others believe is an accurate reflection of those times. This is the past through a glass, and darkly – incomplete, distorted, and unreliable.