Visualizing Apollo’s Exploration and the Idea of Progress

Buzz Aldrin at the Flag, an iconic image from Apollo 11. This image also circled the globe immediately after its release in July 1969 and has been used for all manner of purposes since that time. The flag in this image proved a powerful trope of American exceptionalism.

For all but a handful of space travelers the voyages of exploration into space were events participated in vicariously by the  billions of humans living on Earth. It has brought a connectedness and reinforced a common set of values among many Americans, no doubt. Most importantly, I would assert, the power of space imagery has served very specific needs for the United States, and it has largely been mobilized to concretize those issues in the period since the last flights.

This imagery fundamentally documented in graphic detail scientific aspects of these missions. Second, these images served the important task of demonstrating quite effectively the vicarious nature the exploration. Third, all of this spaceflight imagery signaled a public message of progress and a prosperous future. At one level they served as harbingers of economic activities that would ultimately exploit the universe as it came under human control.

Finally, and most importantly, all of this imagery served a very specific national sense by highlighting prestige and honor in demonstrating the verisimilitude of the accomplishment. These images bespeak the expansive manner in which the United States took its measure among the nations of the globe. In creating such powerful and unique images, the United States stood to gain in the eyes of the world penultimate stature. Especially in the case of the voyages of Apollo but also in other settings and projects, the imagery offered an archetypal statement of American ingenuity, technological virtuosity, national exceptionalism, and the power of the state to accomplish useful things. It represented one aspect of the manner in which the U.S. stood at the center of a developing global culture with consumerism, capitalism, and other “isms” at its core.

As art historian Laura M. André has suggested in the context of Apollo photography but it may be extended to the full range of spaceflight imagery, “in the midst of the Cold War, NASA and the western mass media took full advantage of these neat, coincidental alignments of ideology and event, naturalizing the first manned lunar orbit as a victory not only for the United States, but also for democracy, Judeo-Christian values, capitalism, and, of course, the patriotic American heroes who made the dangerous journey.” This, of course, came despite its origins as a struggle for world domination between two superpowers. She overstates, but barely so, that the imagery that has become so iconic over time proved “merely ironic by-products of a bellicose endeavor—the Cold War space race.”

“Earthrise,” one of the most powerful and iconic images from the Apollo program, was taken in December 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the Moon after the first lunar orbit. Used as a symbol of the planet’s fragility, it juxtaposes the grey, lifeless Moon in the foreground with the blue and white Earth teeming with life hanging in the blackness of space.

In many ways this suggests a dominant narrative of the idea of progress, an amorphous concept but one that is central to American national identity, present throughout the imagery of spaceflight. The imagery supports the assertion of anthropologist Taylor Dark:

The idea of progress has typically advanced three claims: 1. There are no fundamental limits on the human capacity to grow, however growth is defined; 2. Advancements in science and technology foster improvements in the moral and political character of humanity; and, 3. There is an innate directionality in human society, rooted in societal, psychological, or biological mechanisms, that drives civilization toward advancement.

Although progress had been present earlier in the works of space advocates it emerged full blown in the heroic age of spaceflight when enthusiasts believed they were on the verge of a new golden age in which anything could be accomplished. Spaceflight’s transcendental qualities were not lost on those who believed that the human race could eventually attain this end. Movement into space, first with exploring expeditions and later with colonies, offered an opportunity for humanity to move outward and start anew on a pristine planet. Apollo had shown it was possible. It suggested that America had both the capability and the wherewithal to accomplish truly astounding goals. All it needed was the will. As Senator Abraham Ribicoff mused in 1969, “If men can visit the Moon—and now we know they can—then there is no limit to what else we can do. Perhaps that is the real meaning of Apollo 11.”

The essence of progress present in Apollo imagery is unmistakable, along with the dominant narrative of American triumph, exceptionalism, and success so much a part of the interpretation of space exploration in American history. From an advertising perspective, the linkage of individual corporations to this grand endeavor was an easy sell. Is it any wonder that it would be central to positive elements of the American culture in the last half century?

This impressive lunarscape, with an Apollo 17 astronaut and the lunar rover small at the center of the image, suggests the awesomeness of the “Magnificent Desolation” of the Moon.

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