From the Cave to the Moon

Originally published in TIA Daily.

Today is the 40th anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon—an event that still reverberates as the symbol of mankind’s unlimited potential for achievement.

But as Ayn Rand observed at the time, the culture’s intellectuals did not want to have to confront the meaning and implications of the moon landing. She quoted, as the most consistent representative, the reaction of Pablo Picasso. When asked what he thought about the moon landing, he replied: “It means nothing to me. I have no opinion about it, and I don’t care.” (Ayn Rand quipped, in return, “His work has been demonstrating that for years.”)

Thus, for an event so inherently dramatic, the moon launch—and the space program in general—has not generally been a subject for art, literature, or even the movies. There are many more films on the Holocaust than there are on the Apollo program, which is a serious sign of inverted priorities.

There have been a few attempts. The Right Stuff (1983) captured some of the daredevil, cowboy sense of life of the former test pilots who joined the early space program—but in typical Tom Wolfe Attention Deficit Disorder style, it mostly bounced off the surface of the story. Apollo 13 (1995) was significantly better, but it looked at too narrow and unsatisfying a slice of the issue: the heroic attempt to salvage a failed mission to the moon. Fortunately, however, that film led to the one really good fictionalization of the space program that I can recommend. The same team, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, with Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks as a co-producer, created the 1998 HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon.”

The twelve one-hour episodes tell the story chronologically, using the same actors to play the same characters, but each episode focuses on a different aspect of the Apollo program, with a self-contained story, a different theme, and sometimes a slightly different style. The episode that deals with the Apollo 13 mission, for example, focuses on the role of the press in covering the space program—a clever way for the producers to avoid treading over the same ground as the feature film.

Three episodes in particular stand out in my mind as the best. Part 4, “1968,” captures the enormous cultural contrast of the Apollo years: the descent into irrationality and barbarism on earth, contrasted with clean rationality and competent achievement in space. 1968 is portrayed as a horrible, no good, very bad year—which is “saved” at the end by the success of Apollo 8’s flyby around the moon. (My only quibble is this episode’s use of split screens—a horrible, no good, very bad filmmaking fad left over from 1968.) It is a metaphor for how the culture at large was saved, in part, by the inspirational example of the space program, which demonstrated that unkempt hippies rioting at political conventions were not the real future of the country or of the world.

The moon launch was a uniquely scientific and technological achievement, but it is precisely this aspect of the story that has rarely been dramatized in films about the space program, or in any other film, for that matter. Part 5, “Spider,” brilliantly tells the story of the engineers who designed and tested the lunar module, following each of their key decisions and showing their ingenuity and conscientiousness in perfecting the design. I particularly liked this episode’s use of the jaunty military-march theme from The Great Escape to portray an engineering design problem as a kind of military campaign of the mind.

Other episodes have their good points. Part 6, which presents the Apollo 11 landing itself, focuses on an interesting aspect of the story: Neil Armstrong’s choice of the immortal words he spoke as he took the first step on the moon—and which he got right: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” I also like the way the next episode broke the dramatic tension by focusing on the high-spirited camaraderie of the astronauts on Apollo 12.

But the high point in the series, for me, was Part 10: “Galileo Was Right.” When geologist-turned-astronaut Jack Schmitt is told that his moon landing has been cancelled (as Congress cuts funding for the Apollo program), he dedicates himself to improving the scientific education program for the other astronauts, recruiting his crusty, Feynman-esque former geology professor for the job. We watch as a team of fighter jocks are transformed into scientists who unexpectedly discover that the joy of scientific discovery is the best part of their voyage to the moon. (And it turns out that Schmitt would end up going to the moon after all, on Apollo 17.)

On the 40th anniversary of the moon launch, there will be a lot of discussion about whether we should go back to the moon, or whether we should go to Mars—all of which is beside the point. As Ayn Rand put it, “it is not of enormous importance to most people that man lands on the moon, but that man can do it, is.” And that is what “From the Earth to the Moon” dramatizes.

The meaning of the moon landing is primarily what it says about man himself—about the scope of the achievement that is possible to us and the qualities that make it possible. That’s why I want to suggest that you pair “From the Earth to the Moon” with another video (and book) that looks at this issue from what is, literally, a more primitive perspective.

The Journey of Man (2003)—available as both a documentary and a book—tells the story of how primitive man first left Africa to populate the earth, starting 50,000 years ago.

I had originally planned to review “The Journey of Man” separately, but when I was talking about it with my wife Sherri, she startled me by suggesting that it belonged with “From the Earth to the Moon.” And she was right. “From the Earth to the Moon” captures the story of how modern man conquered the moon, but The Journey of Man is the story of how early man conquered the earth.

In one respect, The Journey of Man is a story of modern scientific discovery. The author (and the host of the documentary) is Spencer Wells, a young scientist who was part of a program that took a genetic survey of human populations from around the globe and used that evidence to map out when and where early humans migrated after they left Africa. Wells describes how scientists were able to discover genetic markers passed down from father to son which all show that the human race is descended from one man living in Africa 50,000 years ago. Wells then describes how random mutations in these genetic markers allow us to determine that, say, the population of Northern Europe branched off from tribes in Central Asia, and how scientists are able to project from the evidence how far back these mutation occurred.

The documentary version of The Journey of Man is indispensable because it is helpful to actually see the faces of the various peoples around the world and the terrain they had to learn to live on, but the book provides much greater detail and richness, particularly when it comes to the fascinating details of the genetic science involved. I was particularly struck by how Wells draws on genetic evidence to explain how language and agriculture spread—in effect, using the science of genetics to open up the pre-history of man. (For those who are interested, Wells followed up with a 2007 book that appears to be a primer on the field of genetic anthropology.)

The story all of this modern science is used to convey is the enormous courage and resourcefulness of ancient man, who crossed oceans and mountain ranges and adapted to every climate on earth. For example, where do you suppose the second-oldest human populations—genetically speaking—can be found? That is, where is the first place humans migrated to after they left Africa? The answer may surprise you: Australia. Wells explains how humans who had adapted to living on the coastline of Africa traveled along the southern shore of Asia, until they reached what was, in the different climate of that time, a continent that was contiguous with Southern Asia.

The rapidity of human migration from Africa to Australia is surprising, but what I found really startling was the story of how one group of humans made it to the plains a Central Asia and then branched off 40,000 years ago, headed into the frozen wastelands to the north—and kept going. Wells travels to the Siberian tundra to see how their descendants live today, then describes how another branch of these Siberian nomads went on to cross over the land bridge from Asia and populate the Americas.

Wells describes the basic principle of how early man spread. Each kind of habitat acts as a highway. If man learned how to live on the coastlines, he would spread rapidly across the coastlines for as far as he could go. He would then stop until he learned how to live on grasslands, and then he would spread rapidly across the grassy plains for as far as he could go. And then he would learn how to survive in the tundra, and spread rapidly across the frozen wasteland.

What struck me is that this was the equivalent, in primitive terms, of journeying to the moon. It was a series of small steps for the ancient men traveling on foot into the north—but it was another giant leap for mankind. Man had a long, long way to go before he would acquire a knowledge of reason, science, and technology, which would lead to the geometric expansion of his capabilities. But to survive in such a harsh, barren, unforgiving environment required the same fundamental qualities of the human spirit: the same courage, intelligence, ambition, and persistence.

Taken together, “From the Earth to the Moon” and The Journey of Man are a permanent cure for pessimism in any form. They are a reminder that extraordinary achievement is the normal state of man, and any trouble that we have faced in the past year or the past decade or even the past century is insignificant by comparison. The journey from the cave to the moon is the real essence of the human story—and Communism or Fascism or Islamism, or a financial crisis, or the blunders made by one particular man in the office of the presidency, are all non-essential.

Over centuries and millennia, the manner in which we achieve our conquest of the universe has radically improved and our range of achievement has expanded. But the moon landing was not some unprecedented exception, neither in the modern world, nor in the long history of mankind. On the contrary, it is who we are and what we have been doing for 50,000 years.

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