Neil Armstrong and the myth of the moon landing

We're moving from 'the Eagle has landed' to 'the Eagle will never return'

People love conspiracy theories. I mean, they are very attractive. But it was never a concern to me, because I know that one day, somebody’s going to go and fly back up there, and pick up that camera that I left.
Neil Armstrong

For the record, and with deep respect to the late and thoroughly admirable Neil Armstrong, I don’t doubt he went to the moon. The evidence is overwhelming. But the death of the first man on the moon brings the moon landing itself one giant step closer to the realm of pure myth.

After all, Armstrong was the first of only twelve human beings to have walked the lunar surface. There are just eight astronauts alive today who have been to the moon, and they were all born in the 1930s. You do the math: the list of eyewitnesses to the thin sliver of history in which humans went to the moon is shrinking.

On the other hand, so are the claims the moon landings were hoaxed: recent photographs that clearly show astronaut tracks on the lunar surface along with landing modules ought to silence some of the remaining die-hard skeptics. For now, that is, and as long as our technology keeps pace with our collective doubts.

Still, as I’ve noted elsewhere, facts are limited; questions are endless. Who knows what our descendents will believe, sight unseen, on hand-me-down evidence about the exploits of legendary ancestors?

Thus the moon landing moves from fact, to memory, to myth; a myth being a story, which may or may not have its roots in fact, by which a given people lives.

Myth-making, of course, was what America’s political brain trust had in mind when President Kennedy announced the goal of going to the moon in the first place, saying “space is there, and we’re going to climb it.” Kennedy’s men wanted to create a greater story for the American people, one that would inspire them literally to greater heights—and put the lie to the great myth being promulgated by the Soviets, who at that point were well ahead in the space race.

Neil Armstrong’s small step made the point irrevocably; the mighty American myth was at its apex when Armstrong stepped off the lunar lander ladder into moon dust. The impression remains, though Armstrong’s trudge through history is complete.

So the moon landing has always been part news story, part myth. But now there’s little in the way of new news, in the moon myth department—aside from the deaths of the only men who have ever been there.

The mythic space race (featuring rockets named for Greek gods) between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union has pretty much been run. The space shuttles are forever grounded; the International Space Station, for all its collectivist merits, orbits the Earth, barely at the edge of space. Astronauts of all nations hitch rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz rockets. Mars is being explored by robot rovers; a human Mars mission is a dream at best.

Neil Armstrong, a practical, affable and humble man, personified such a dream for a generation. He was a truly great American, and now he’s gone. As for the moon, the eternal subject of the dreamer’s gaze… well, the moon is what it’s always been: empty, devoid of atmosphere, and very, very far away. Over 384,000 kilometres away, more than a thousand times the distance to the ISS.

Chances are pretty good that we’re not going back. The technology is there; the justification, not so much—let alone the financing. And the will? Imagine President Obama, or President Romney announcing a mission to the moon early into the new presidency? In a U.S.A. where millions of Americans still struggle with catastrophic debt, displacement, natural disasters, environmental catastrophe, an overstretched military and an increasingly polarized body politic? Without the Red Menace to spur the nation to action, it’s just hard to fathom now.

And if not now, when?

The lunar sands don’t shift, but a nation’s stories do. A generation after Apollo 11, the winds of change have drifted the moon landing myth all over the place. Even in its time the trip to the moon was far from universally appreciated: Gil Scott-Heron, in Whitey on the Moon, saw the effort as white America’s ultimate act of unconcern, and W.H. Auden, in Moon Landing lamented a “phallic triumph.” Still, for a time a consensus prevailed that putting a man on the moon was a heck of a great thing.

By the early eighties, Bob Dylan, in License to Kill, could construe the moon landing as the first step toward man’s doom. Today, that attitude is increasingly common, as social, political, economic and environmental challenges here on Earth draw our eyes away from the heavens again.

From triumph, to hubris, to today’s fading memory: we’re moving from “the Eagle has landed” to “the Eagle will never return.” A future moon mission isn’t even on NASA’s list.

Where once the Russians challenged America’s notion of its own supremacy, today it’s the Chinese. There is constant speculation that China may launch a moon mission at some point; if so, their reasons for doing this will be much like those that spurred the Space Race between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

The practical value may be negligible; the cost will certainly be astronomical. But the symbolic significance will be incalculable. A Chinese mission to the moon would ensconce a new myth in the firmament, a story to propel another people’s progress. Whatever the practicalities, putting a person on the moon will always be a lofty achievement. And China may have an easier time funneling resources toward such a goal than America ever will again.

Perhaps they’ll succeed, in the next decade or two. But I’m willing to bet the next footsteps on the moon, just like first ones, will trail off pretty quickly. Perhaps a century from now, well into the era of Chinese ascendancy, the first of the Chinese moon explorers will pass away, as Neil Armstrong has now done, leaving another generation to ponder humankind’s heavenly potential—and its earthly limitations.

The moon will, of course, remain what it’s always been: empty, devoid of atmosphere, and very, very far away. But compelling, as ever, to the dreamer: the stuff of which myths are made.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.