Wednesday, October 10, 2007

7 Means of Movement: Rocketing

Tom Baker, Ode to Homo Sapiens.
Elton John, Rocket Man.
Sun Ra, We Travel the Spaceways.
Television, The Rocket.
Lee Harvey Oswald Band, Rocket 69.
Destroyer, The Space Race.
Jerry Engler, Sputnik (Satellite Girl).
The Divine Comedy, Laika's Theme.
The Five Du-Tones, The Chicken Astronaut.
Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, Moonshot.
David Bowie, Space Oddity (demo).
Peter Schilling, Major Tom (Coming Home).
The Rolling Stones, 2000 Light Years from Home.
Devo, Space Girl Blues.
Sheila and B. Devotion, Spacer.
Klaatu, Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.
Bill Murray, Star Wars Theme.
Culture, Black Starliner Must Come.

Some people think of the future and it upsets them. They see a rocket; they start building a bomb shelter. I don't think it's ridiculous to assume that we're looking for other planets because this one will end.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Mad Men.

1975: Stuart Roosa, command module pilot for Apollo 14, and his wife Joan are in Nepal on a goodwill mission for the State Department, during which Roosa gives a talk at a school. After his speech, one child asks who Roosa had seen on the moon. Roosa says he saw no one, to gasps and murmurs. The students keep pressing Roosa, asking over and over whether he had seen anyone on the moon. Roosa, baffled, finally snaps: "There is no one there. There is nothing there. Not even wind. There is nothing."

A State Department official later tells Roosa that many Nepalese believe the spirits of their ancestors live on the moon. So Roosa basically had told the children that there was no heaven.

1976: The Roosas are now in Egypt, and they visit a granite quarry near Aswan, where there is a ruined obelisk from roughly 3500 B.C. Had it been completed, the obelisk would have stood some 140 feet high, but at some point it had been abandoned by its builders and now lies in pieces, barely discernible from the rocks of the quarry.

The sight reminds Roosa of the defunct Apollo program. "It's like we started building this beautiful thing and we quit," he says years later. "History will not be kind to us, because we were stupid."

Tom Baker's ode to the feats of homo sapiens is from the great Doctor Who serial "The Ark in Space" from 1974, in which the Doctor marvels (in the way we would marvel at an extravagant ant colony) at the sight of a group of humans in suspended animation, having escaped a catastrophe that left Earth lifeless.

The Last Launch

1972: On the evening of December 6, when a newly re-elected Richard Nixon is in Washington, when Harry Truman lies dying in a Kansas City hospital, the last manned lunar mission, Apollo 17, lifts off from Florida and enters space.

There is a general, if unspoken sense that this is the end: the last moon launch many will see in their lifetimes. In the stands watching the launch at Cape Kennedy, there is an odd assortment of people: Tom Wolfe, covering the launch for Rolling Stone; Charlie Smith, a 130-year-old man believed to be the oldest living American; and Ahmet Ertegun, who plays backgammon in the grass.

Playing on a transistor radio is the previous summer's hit, Elton John's "Rocket Man," in which space travel has become just another long commute. It's a song inspired by a Ray Bradbury story, or it's about drugs, or maybe about being a parent. The most telling lines, though, come in the chorus: I think it's going to be a long, long time...

(Not heard on the radio, but playing somewhere in America is Sun Ra's "We Travel the Spaceways." One can imagine Sun Ra watching the moon launch on television, and scoffing. On We Travel the Spaceways, from 1961.)

The crew of Apollo 17 is Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt. Five hours after launch, Schmitt takes a photograph of the departing earth that later is known as "The Blue Marble." On December 11, Cernan and Schmitt become the last human beings to walk on the moon, bringing a Czechoslovakian flag (Cernan's parents were a Czech and a Slovak) and leaving a plaque on the surface, signed by the astronauts and Richard Nixon: "Here Man completed his first explorations of the moon, December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."

Harrison Schmitt on the moon

On the ride back to Earth, the crew hears Nixon speaking from the Oval Office: "This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon, but space exploration will continue." The astronauts are incredulous--the last time this century? It is only 1972. Schmitt actually weeps. But Nixon knows the truth.

The Moon is a white strange world, great, white, soft-seeming globe in the night sky, and what she actually communicates to me across space I shall never fully know. But the Moon that pulls the tides, and the Moon that controls the menstrual periods of women, and the Moon that touches the lunatics, she is not the mere dead lump of the astronomist...When we describe the Moon as dead, we are describing the deadness in ourselves. When we find space so hideously void, we are describing our own unbearable emptiness.

D.H. Lawrence, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, 1930.

Swords to Plowshares

Wernher von Braun and his children

1929: Fritz Lang, while making the film Frau Im Mond, invents the concept of the numerical countdown to a rocket launch, throwing it into the launch scene simply to heighten suspense. When the Nazi rocket program begins in earnest in the mid-1930s, the rocket models used in Lang's film are destroyed, and Frau Im Mond is withdrawn from release, for national security reasons.

1945: Bavaria, early May, the last days of the war. An American private guarding an access road is hailed by a small group of battered Germans. He aims his rifle at them as they approach him with arms raised. One, in broken English, says: "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender."

The von Brauns and the rest of the German Rocket Team, fearing the advance of the Red Army, have fled their laboratory at Peenemünde, buried 13 years worth of paperwork in an abandoned mine shaft, and have made their way across the collapsing Reich to cast their lot with the Americans.

Rockets under construction, Mittelwerk, 1945 (more images here).

A month before, American soldiers, on a drive to Nordhausen, had stumbled upon the Mittelwerk. They discovered a gutted, hollowed mountain, whose caverns are filled with enormous rockets stacked in rows, emaciated half-dead slaves abandoned by their masters, and stacks upon stacks of corpses. It's like an outpost of hell. As soon as the U.S. Army hears of the discovery, they order everything of value to be hauled out and shipped overseas, ultimately to New Mexico. The surrendering Rocket Team, having been given immediate amnesty, follows their rockets to the U.S.

Around the same time, the Red Army captures some 6,000 German rocket scientists and hauls them off to the Russian steppes to be put to work. And so the space age begins, owed in great part to the Nazis.

Television's "The Rocket" is from their reunion LP from 1992, available only as an import.

And "Rocket 69" is from the Lee Harvey Oswald Band's 1996 Blastronaut.

The Space Race

1957: In the autumn, across the world, around dusk, people walk out into the streets, go out into their backyards, and stare up at the skies to wait for Sputnik. An Air Force sergeant in Fresno sees a bright ball, moving at a fast clip; a nun teaching second grade at a parochial school in New Jersey tells her students to pray, because the communists have put another moon in the sky.

Brave Laika

Destroyer's "The Space Race" is from 1998's City of Daughters.

Odes to the golden age of Soviet space exploration: Jerry Engler and the Four Ekkos' "Sputnik Girl" was rushed out weeks after the Sputnik launch in 1957 (on That'll Flat Git It! Vol. 6), while "Laika's Theme" is off The Divine Comedy's Absent Friends, from 2004.

And the fantastic "The Chicken Astronaut" is by the Five Du-Tones, from 1963. On The Five Du-Tones. (Thanks to Moistworks).

We Wish You Bon Voyage

1969: In Cureglia,Switzerland, Vladimir Nabokov rents a television set to watch the first moon landing. He is completely elated. A few years later, in Strong Opinions, he writes of the landing: Oh, "impressed" is not the right word! Treading the soil of the moon gives one, I imagine (or rather my projected self imagines), the most remarkable romantic thrill ever experienced in the history of discovery.

In Paris, Pablo Picasso is asked what he thinks. "It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don't care."

1973: Edgar Mitchell, having walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 14 mission, founds the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which seeks to study "unscientific" practices such as telepathy, telekinesis and psychic healing. Later, Mitchell says he performed ESP experiments during the moonshot. Wernher von Braun, intrigued, allegedly considers setting up a NASA installation to conduct further ESP tests.

James Irwin, having walked on the moon as part of Apollo 15, leaves NASA to found the High Flight Foundation, an evangelical Christian group. Irwin tells audiences that walking on the moon's surface was a spiritual epiphany, and that he "felt the power of God as never before." Irwin later leads two expeditions to Mount Ararat in search of Noah's Ark.

Buffy St. Marie's "Moonshot" is the spiritual world's reaction to the marvels of government science, or the colonized's rebuttal to the colonizer, who, having done with the earth, is moving on to the heavens. Dean and Britta's version is from 2003's L'Avventura.

After an initial burst of Sputnik/flying saucer novelty songs in the '50s, there is a vogue for "space" songs from the late '60s through the late '70s. Space travel is first aligned with psychedelia and chemical trips ("Insterstellar Overdrive," or the Stones' ominous "2000 Light Years from Home," from Their Satanic Majesties Request), and later with vague New Age philosophies (see Buffy St. Marie). But after the end of the moon launches, and with the popularity of Star Wars and Close Encounters, there is a move towards the campy, the sentimental and the ridiculous.

So you have Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," which is covered almost note-for-note by the Carpenters, who begin their version with aliens calling a radio station to make a request (on Klaatu/Hope, from 1976); or the French model/singer Sheila and the unfortunately-named "Black Devotion" (her group of backing singers--someone finally got a clue and altered the name), who somehow landed Chic--Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson and Nile Rodgers at the peak of their powers--for 1979's "Spacer", which, as it happens, is one of the best grooves Chic ever recorded. (On The Disco Years, Vol. 4.)

The Endless Loop

1984: Virginia. In my bedroom hangs a mounted photograph of the Space Shuttle Columbia, signed and dedicated to me by the first Shuttle pilot, Robert Crippen. A friend, looking at the photo one day, asks me if I know that Major Tom was a real astronaut. We have been listening to the Peter Schilling song, a sequel to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." My friend recounts a story that has been redacted from rumors, half-remembered news broadcasts, movies and lies: there was a top-secret Soviet outer-space spy mission in the '70s, in which Major Tom, while spacewalking, was accidentally severed from his ship and flew out into space; he is still sailing outward now, maybe having reached Jupiter. "The Russians just let him go--they don't care. They don't care if you live or die, 'cos they're all godless, right." My friend comes from a devout Baptist family.

"But in the song, it says he's coming home," I say. It's the right answer, and he beams at me. "That's right! He's coming back, just like Jesus did. And I bet he's going to tell the Russians a few things." Two years later, the same friend tells me in the school hallway that the Challenger had just exploded.

I looked and looked but I didn't see God.

Yuri Gagarin, April 1961.

(Bowie's 1969 demo is on Sound and Vision; Schilling's 1983 sequel is on Best of '80s Pop.)

there was never a more honest advertisement

2002: Locust St. For a birthday party, I set up an Atari 2600 system so that friends can play vintage games. One game that I've bought on Ebay is Space Shuttle, from 1983, which might be the dullest video game ever made. The object, as far as anyone can determine, is to guide the space shuttle like an airplane down a runway, slowly take off, orbit and land. You don't go anywhere, you don't do anything. After playing a few times, nearly everyone walks away, bored or confused.

: One frigid Saturday morning, I turn on the computer to see that the Columbia had disintegrated while re-entering the atmosphere over Texas. Like the majority of Americans, my first thought is: "They had launched the Space Shuttle?" Somewhere in my parents' garage, warped and rain-chewed, is that signed photograph.

Back Again

1961: John Kennedy addresses a special joint session of Congress: "Now it is time to take longer strides--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth...we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule...Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

: In the midst of a violent, chaotic Jamaican election, some hope for liberation to come from the stars. (Two Sevens Clash.)

2001: The Fox network airs one of the most reprehensible programs in its history: "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" which purports to show evidence that NASA faked the moon landings. The program claims that 20% of Americans do not believe astronauts landed on the moon, a finding thankfully determined later to be inaccurate.

2007: Virgin Galactic is offering $200,000 tickets for private spaceship travel, possibly by decade's end; NASA claims the US will be back on the moon by 2018. My money's on Richard Branson to get there first.

Some Last Words

In outer space you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, "Look at that, you son of a bitch!"

Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. "What do I see?" I replied. "Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small."

Vitali Sevastyanov, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

If somebody'd said before the flight, "Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?" I would have said, "No, no way." But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.

Alan Shepard, Apollo 14.

The Earth was small, light blue, and so touchingly alone, our home that must be defended like a holy relic.

Aleksei Leonov, Voshkod 2.

Among the many various literary and artistic pursuits which invigorate men's minds, the strongest affection and utmost zeal should, I think, promote the studies concerned with the most beautiful objects, most deserving to be known. This is the nature of the discipline which deals with the universe's divine revolutions, the stars' motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings, as well as the causes of the other phenomena in the sky, and which, in short, explains its whole appearance.

What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty?...On account of heaven's transcendent perfection most philosophers have called it a visible god.

Nicolas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, 1543.

Sources: Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles and Men in Space; Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon (source of most of the great astronaut stories); Walter A. McDougall, ...the Heavens and the Earth.

For Ada and Alice, who are hopefully part of the first Martian generation.

1 comment:

Muddy said...

It's been a while since I've been to your amazing site. I enjoy it anew with each visit. Thanks for all the great information on the space program. I don't recall hearing Spacer before, though I've had it on my hard drive since you posted it.

I just wanted to let you know that your hard work continues to earn interest.

Thank you.