A cultural debate has raged during the first part of the twenty-first century over the meaning of the Apollo program. Much of the recollection of Apollo’s legacy revolves around ideas of ‘progress’ for the American nation. At the same time, Apollo signals nostalgia for the past in which society, culture, economics, politics, and other attribute of the public sphere seemed to work better.
Apollo nostalgia manifests itself in several ways. It may be found in numerous popular conceptions of Apollo, especially in film, literature, music, theater, and advertising. In each of these arenas three great themes played out in the nostalgic past of Apollo. Apollo nostalgia hearkens back to an era of the 1960s in which order ruled and all seemed in its place. Central to this, in the pre-Great Society and pre-social reformation era, white men oversaw America in a “Leave it to Beaver” type of existence where women were docile helpmates, ethnic and race relations favored American-born whites, and all understood their place in the system.
Most important for reinforcement of this issue, the system worked and in memory enjoyed efficiencies lost in a post-modern, multicultural setting. Apollo nostalgia revolves around the issue of mythical recreations of an era of the 1960s in which order ruled and all seemed in its place. Even Norman Mailer (1923–2007), as much an embodiment of the 1960s counter-culture as anyone, ranted about this aspect of Apollo while covering the Moon landings in 1969. Mailer expressed fascination and not a little perplexity with the time warp that he witnessed at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. He railed against an overwhelmingly white male NASA steeped in middle class values and reverence for the American flag and mainstream culture.
Mailer grudgingly admitted, however, that NASA’s approach to task accomplishment—which he viewed as the embodiment of the Protestant Work Ethic—and its technological and scientific capability got results with Apollo. Even so, he hated NASA’s closed and austere society, one where he believed outsiders were distrusted and held at arm’s length with a bland and faceless courtesy that betrayed nothing. For all of his scepticism, for all of his esotericism, Mailer captured much of interest concerning rocket technology and the people who produced it in Project Apollo.
Mailer’s critique foreshadows by twenty-five years a powerful nostalgia that has grown up around Apollo as a program that was done right, in no small part because it took place within the cultural confines of an era before the social revolution of the 1960s. Nothing captures this nostalgia more effectively than the feature film, Apollo 13, a 1995 docudrama directed by Ron Howard . Set in 1970 when an explosion crippled a lunar landing mission and NASA nearly lost astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert, it has been recast as one of NASA’s finest hours, a successful failure. At 56 hours into the flight an oxygen tank in the Apollo service module ruptured and damaged several of the power, electrical, and life support systems. People throughout the world watched and waited and hoped as NASA personnel on the ground and the crew worked to find a way safely home. It was a close-run thing, but the crew returned safely.
The near disaster served several important purposes for the civil space program—especially prompting reconsideration of the propriety of the whole effort while also solidifying in the popular mind NASA’s collective genius. While one must give the NASA flight team high marks for perseverance, dedication, and an unshakable belief that they could bring the crew home safely, it is quite strange that no one seems to realize that the mission had already failed, and failed catastrophically, by the time of accident. The fact that Apollo 13 is now viewed as one of NASA’s shining moments says much about the ability of humanity to recast historical events into meaningful morality plays.
In this instance, the Apollo 13 film became a vehicle for criticism of the social order that emerged from the 1960s and a celebration of an earlier age. When the film appeared in 1995, reviewer John Powers, writing for the Washington Post, commented on its incessant nostalgia for “the paradisiacal America invoked by Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan—an America where men were men, women were subservient, and people of color kept out of the way.” In addition, Powers wrote, “Its story line could be a Republican parable about 1995 America: A marvelous vessel loses its power and speeds toward extinction, until it’s saved by a team of heroic white men.
If anything, Powers underemphasized the white America evoked in Apollo 13. The only women with speaking parts of substance was Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlin), wife of the Apollo 13 commander, whose role is distinctly one of offering proud support while privately fearing the worst, and their daughter whose role seems to be as spokesperson for the social revolution underway while consistently reflecting its least important elements. For example, she complains in a shriekish voice that the Beatles had just broken up and her world has accordingly collapsed.
The heroes of Apollo 13 were the geeks of Mission Control, with the astronauts aboard the spacecraft as spirited but essentially and metaphorically emasculated characters to be saved. Lovell, Haise, and Swigert must wait to be rescued in a manner not unlike Rapunzel, as an active helper but unable to accomplish the task alone. As historian Tom D. Crouch wrote of this film’s depiction of the “studs” in Mission Control:
The real heroes of this film are either bald or sporting brush cuts; wear thick glasses; are partial to rumpled short sleeve shirts; and chain-smoke an endless string of cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. For all of that, these slide rule-wielding technonerds solve all of the difficult problems required to bring the crew home. They are, in the words of one of the astronauts portrayed in the film, “steely-eyed missile men.”
Apollo 13 the film, accordingly, venerates a long past era in American history. Indeed, it may have been an era already gone by the time of the actual mission in 1970. It is a hallowing of masculinity in a nostalgic context.